Establishing Wholesale Relationships as a Solopreneur

wholesale relationships

Just because you’re a One Woman Shop doesn’t mean there are limits to the scale at which you can produce and sell — are we right? In fact, we believe the potential extends further, as you naturally incur less overhead and own the decision-making power. (#girlboss) So when one of our members posted in the private Facebook group about setting up wholesale relationships, we took to our network and checked in with three business owners with wholesale experience to give us the ins and outs and help you get started. Here’s what Amanda Wright of Wit and Whistle, Mei Pak of Creative Hive, and Jennifer Hill of JHill Design had to say:

Tell us a bit about your current wholesale relationships and how they tie into the rest of your business.

Amanda: I’ve been super lucky with wholesale. As Wit & Whistle has organically grown, the retailers have come to me! Over the years I’ve maintained a strongly branded, active presence on Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook, and my own blog/website. This tangled web of Wit & Whistle has snagged many retailers browsing the internet for products to sell. A lot of retailers turn to Etsy when looking for potential vendors, so maintaining a retail shop there has been a great resource, too. Etsy Wholesale is fairly new, but it has already been a wonderful way for me to connect with new wholesalers. If you’re serious about wholesale, it’s important to have your own gorgeous, professional-looking website to build your credibility. Make sure there’s an easy to spot “wholesale” page that includes a link to your catalog and any other information a retailer might need to get in touch with you and place an order.

Mei: My jewelry business, Tiny Hands, currently sells in over 100 stores across the United States. Most of the stores I sell to are smaller gift shops so I have the opportunity to get to know the shop owners well. In the first two years of taking on wholesale, my business quickly grew to multiple six-figure sales. Half of that can be attributed to wholesale, so it has definitely played a major role in my business. I love being able to diversify my income streams. When it’s a slow month for online retail sales, I can count on wholesale orders to pick up. It’s been great for stability and has even helped grow my retail sales because I have a wider reach in the market and more people have seen my brand!

Jennifer: Wholesale is a small part of our business. Our main piece is direct-to-consumer via our website. But we are always working to grow our wholesale business.

What is your best advice for first establishing contact with potential wholesalers? Do you recommend stopping in to the store, calling, reaching out via email, or something else?

Mei: First and foremost, check the store’s website if they have product submission guidelines. If not, then always email a store instead of walking in. If you can’t find an appropriate email contact, then your best bet is to call the store to ask. The majority of stores prefer being pitched to by email. It doesn’t put them on the spot, and it gives them time to check out your line. It also helps them keep organized with the dozens, if not hundreds of product pitches they receive every week.

If you want to take it a step further, try to establish a connection with the store owners or buyers on social media before you send them an email. That way, they’ll be familiar with who you are and more receptive of your email pitch.

Jennifer: Knowing many store owners, I always think it is best to email first. They are so busy and rarely have the time to review a product at the drop of a dime. Make the email personable, showing that you have researched the store. You may want to mention display ideas so the retailer can begin to picture your goods in their shop.

What makes for a great wholesale relationship?

Amanda: Openness and honesty. I appreciate it so much when my retailers give me feedback on how I can improve my goods and ideas for new products. It’s important to keep in touch with your wholesalers throughout the year, and update them about new collections. This year I’m hoping to print a beautiful Wit & Whistle lookbook to mail out and start sending occasional email newsletters.

Mei: You are all on the same side — you want the store to sell your products well and as a result, they’ll make more orders with you. So make it easy for them. Ship your orders when you say you will. Package your products so they grab a customer’s attention. Offer marketing support to your store’s retail staff. You can educate them on your product’s background to help them talk about and sell your work. Offer to exchange items that aren’t selling for ones that are. Follow up with them to check in on sales. This will all help a store feel taken care of and will make for a great relationship.

Jennifer: Stay in touch and promote them! We always give a shout out on social media when we send a new shipment to our retailers. When we open a new account we send an email blast to our customers in the new store’s area letting them know they can get our goods in person. We also reach out to local press.

What’s one thing that you never thought of prior to establishing a wholesale relationship that you’ve since learned from?

Amanda: It took me a while to grasp that there are different packaging needs when selling wholesale. When a retail customer orders from my website, they get a complete product description on the page. When my products are for sale in stores, the packaging has to communicate everything the customer needs to know. For example, when I first started wholesaling, many of my greeting cards had messages printed inside, but I would package them in sealed cellophane sleeves. In store, customers had no clue what was printed inside the cards! I didn’t even think about it until one of my retailers asked if I could put stickers on the backs that disclosed the inside messages. Oops! My wholesale selling experience has mostly been trial and error, and sometimes I still feel like I don’t know what I’m doing! I figure that’s probably normal. (At least I hope!)

Mei: It’s important to create an irresistible package that makes your product easy to buy. When I started doing wholesale, I just thought having a catalog was all I needed. Later, I put together a package of my best-selling products along with a display rack, tailored to individual stores. That way, instead of just giving stores the option to mix-and-match products, I presented an easy “starter package” for the store that eased the decision-making burden on them and helped tremendously to push sales for me.

Jennifer: Be flexible on terms. Some of our big accounts only pay Net 30; some of our small accounts prefer to pay by bank wire transfer or credit card. We are happy to work with each one.

Have you ever had a wholesale relationship that didn’t go well? What did you learn?

Amanda: I learned that when working with large, nationwide retailers I need to ask if I can read through their vendor manual before accepting any purchase orders (POs). This is especially important if the vendor doesn’t usually work with independent makers. Keeping up with some retailers’ vendor requirements is a full time job in and of itself. It’s difficult to follow hundreds of pages of requirements written for huge factories in Asia when you’re a one-woman operation working out of your suburban basement. Some retailers will even charge you expensive fees if you miss a single step (yes, I also learned that the hard way). Don’t be afraid of working with big retailers, just be vigilant and know what you’re getting into before you start.

Mei: There was one store that was so difficult to work with. They caused so much trouble and every email they sent was a headache to deal with. The last straw was when they tried to reorder way less than my minimum amount. I told them it wasn’t enough for a reorder but in return they berated my work and threatened that they would buy products similar to mine from a different and cheaper source. At that point, I fired them and took back all of my products to end the relationship.

It’s crucial that you sell to the right stores. Sometimes you won’t know if it’s a right fit until after the first order, so it’s hard to avoid these kinds of mishaps. Stand by your product and your wholesale terms and policies. They are there for a reason. When you start bending the rules, some people may take advantage of you. It’s okay to end a wholesale relationship. Some stores just don’t work out.

Have you discovered any downsides of wholesaling? Anything potential wholesalers should be weary of?

Amanda: For me, the only downside to wholesaling has been that it’s more difficult to introduce new types of products. My goods are made in small batches, which means they cost more per piece to manufacture than if I were having them produced in massive quantities. When I get an idea for a new kind of product, I have to make sure I can produce it at a low enough cost that I can sell it at reasonable wholesale rates (50% off retail). At the same time, I have to keep my inventory at manageable levels, because I can only sell so much product, and only have so much storage room in my studio! It’s a tricky balance. I have some products that I just can’t sell to my wholesalers due to the tight profit margins.

Mei: Be sure you have your systems in place. Doing wholesale really tests your process of manufacturing your product in bulk to packaging and shipping them out in a timely manner. The leaks in your systems become apparent with wholesale because you’re dealing with such large numbers compared to a retail order. Be aware of the time you’ll need to spend managing stores as well as acquiring new ones and fulfilling orders. Get your systems down pat and you’ll do great!

Jennifer: Putting together the orders can sometimes take more time than we expect, but in the end it is worth it. Also sending out cold emails to people can sometimes feel like a waste of time. That is one reason that we are looking more at trade shows.

Going forward, how much do you plan to keep wholesaling as part of your business?

Amanda: I hope the wholesale side of my business continues to grow like crazy.  It has been a great source of income for me, and it’s so satisfying to watch the list of retailers that carry Wit & Whistle goods get longer and longer!

Mei: I would love to keep wholesale and retail sales an even split. But the market and technology changes so quickly that not everything is within our control. So, I go wherever my business takes me. If wholesaling opportunities keep coming my way, I won’t turn them down and if it so happens to become all of my business, I’ll just need to adapt and hire more help!

Jennifer: We are hoping to start doing more wholesale in 2016 and begin the trade show circuit!

Thanks so much, ladies!

OWS readers: after the fantastic information shared by Amanda, Mei, and Jennifer, what other questions do you have about establishing wholesale relationships as a One Woman Shop? Tell us in the comments below!

Sell Your Products Online: Bootstrap an Online Store

Ready to sell products online but too caught up in the day-to-day tasks of marketing and management to build your online store?

We get it. As one-woman businesses, we’ve all been there. Our time is extremely valuable. We don’t have the space in our schedule — or the skills — to create an online store, especially when eCommerce is just plain intimidating.

There are a lot of moving parts to e-commerce: confirming secure transactions, solidifying payment methods, sorting out product delivery, and handling customer service, among others.

Overwhelmed yet? Don’t be. While there are plenty of e-commerce platforms you can choose from to build your own online store, I have great news for you: there are fast, affordable, and easy ways to sell your products online without the backend hassle. In fact, you could be selling your products in less than an hour!

Sell Your Digital Products Online

Digital products are one of the easiest and most cost-effective products to create. One of the biggest perks: you don’t have to concern yourself with inventory management. Another perk? There are a variety of digital products you can create. You could:

  • write a how-to eBook
  • create a video tutorial
  • record audio coaching sessions

Those are just a few examples. Selling digital products is a great way to grow your brand’s image and highlight your expertise, while making some extra money.

My suggestion for getting started: in less than an hour of your time (once your product is created), you can create a customized Selz store and start selling your digital masterpieces. Selz’ newest app, StorePro, allows users to create an online store using one of their professional themes. Plus, customers can shop from any tablet or smartphone. Setting up a Selz store is free, and they only charge a small percentage of each sale. One of the best parts about Selz is you don’t need any technical skills. They handle the entire sales process.

See it in action: Sofia Cope sells her Pretty Procrastinator Planner using Selz, which is an undated printable planner designed for busy women.

Pretty Procrastinator Planner Selz

Sell Your Own Line of Merchandise Online

One drawback when creating a line of brand merchandise is the enormous cost of selling it. This includes buying inventory, paying set-up and printing fees, and more. It can cost thousands of dollars, with no guarantee that it will sell, typically making it cost-prohibitive for most solo businesses. However, there’s a solution — if you’ve got a great design or brand logo, you can create an entire line of merchandise without any upfront costs.

My suggestion for getting started: Zazzle allows users to create an entire line of merchandise, and sell if from your own Zazzle shop. You can customize a variety of products, including t-shirts, paper items, baby products, business items, and pet products. Simply apply your unique design to any product you choose, and Zazzle handles printing, shipping, and the entire sales transaction. Zazzle charges a royalty for each sale, but you don’t have to worry about having leftover inventory or shipping costs. You don’t need any special skills to create a product or set up a Zazzle store. It’s a great choice for any solo business!

See it in action: Artist Melanie Taylor sells hundreds of unique products — from tote and messenger bags to mugs and iPad cases in her Zazzle store, The Creative Taylor.

Creative Taylor on Zazzle

Take Your Local Shop Online

If you run an offline business, you may not realize you can easily sell your products online. You’ll give your local customers a new way to buy your products, plus you can attract new customers outside your area.

My suggestion for getting started: Square allows users to create a professional online shop for their products. They cater to a variety of businesses, including food & beverage, retail, beauty, and health & fitness. It doesn’t cost anything to create a Square shop, and Square charges a small transaction fee per sale. You don’t need any special skills, and they handle the entire sales transaction. Square also has helpful features for offline businesses, including an appointment feature where customers can book an appointment with you online. Plus, your store will get listed in the Square Market, which may attract new customers.

See it in action: Alison Comfort is the owner of House of Moss, and sells creates miniature woodland-themed felted wool items from her Square store.

House of Moss Square shop

Anyone Can Bootstrap an Online Store!

In all of the above examples, One Woman Shops are selling digital products, merchandise, and physical goods online with no tech skills necessary and very little investment.

You don’t need to invest in inventory, an ecommerce website, or learn coding. You can easily bootstrap an online store by using an eCommerce framework like Zazzle, Selz or Square. For any solo business woman, using one of these platforms takes the risk out of eCommerce – and leaves the overwhelming aspects of selling products online to the experts.

Spend your time focusing on growing your business, and creating products you love. Remember, running a solo business is challenging – but creating an online store doesn’t need to be.

How to Choose an E-Commerce Platform

You know that e-commerce is growing, but do you have any idea how big the online market really is?

According to the business research firm IBIS World, online sales reached $297.9 billion in 2013. And e-commerce sales are expected to reach 6.5% of total retail sales in 2014!

If you’re thinking about running an online business with a product to sell (or already are!), it’s time to get a slice of the ever-expanding pie. Beyond deciding and developing what you’re going to sell, one of the hardest decisions you’ll have to make is which e-commerce platform to use. Luckily, we’re here to help.

Start here: Do you already have an existing blog or website?

Don’t have a website? Choose a dedicated online store

Several online e-commerce platforms allow businesses to create their own dedicated online shop. Although going this route can require a significant investment in time and money, it’s a great option if you’re just launching an online presence. Here are a few trusty sites where you can set up shop:

Shopify

With Shopify, you can sell either online or in your offline retail shop. There are no limits on the types of products you can sell. It’s easy to get started, and requires zero design or coding skills. With the ability to customize the color, layout, and content of your site, it looks great straight out of the box.

A huge benefit to Shopify is that support is good and fast — you are not reliant on unresponsive forums for answers. Shopify starts at $29 a month for a basic shop, with a 2% transaction fee up to $179 per month. If based outside of the US, you will also need a credit card payment processor like Stripe, who will charge you an additional 2.7% + 30c for each credit card transaction.

Magento

Magento is an open-source platform that allows users to sell any type of retail product. It’s free to download and has a detailed start up guide, yet those who do not have experience with code may find it too complex for their needs. There is no technical support for this plan. However, it does have a very supportive and active community.

The lowest monthly plan is $15/month with a limited number of products and storage. Magento integrates extremely well with Ebay (unsurprising, as it’s actually owned by Ebay!)  However, it doesn’t have an integrated blog – a serious drawback when it comes to attracting inbound traffic.

Etsy

Etsy is the most popular e-commerce platform for handmade goods, vintage items, and craft supplies. There is no membership fee, but it costs $0.20 to list an item for 4 months and 3.5% fee on the sale price. Although the type of items is restricted to crafts and vintage, it’s a great option if that’s your niche.

Have an existing website or blog? Monetize it!

If you want to monetize your existing blog, you’re in luck — it’s easy to integrate e-commerce into your site. No need to send your audience to an external site to complete the checkout; the following options are easy and affordable ways you can integrate e-commerce into your blog or website to monetize your existing readers.

Selz

Selz caters to both digital and physical products, but also comes with an added bonus – you can sell services through it, as well. It’s easy to sign up and navigate, and its clean user design is extremely appealing. Use is free, with a small fee paid when you make a sale. Unlike several of the other e-commerce integration solutions, there are no other credit card processing costs, and no limits on the number of products or bandwidth.

While it is possible to create a dedicated online store with Selz, integrating it into your existing website is simple. With a little technical skill, you can embed a buy button or store into your existing site quickly with a snippet of code. The checkout process offers customers the choice of buying with a credit card or PayPal without them leaving your site — meaning better conversions and more sales.

E-Junkie

E-Junkie provides a shopping cart and “Buy Now” buttons to sell digital downloads and physical products on your blog or website. The benefit of using E-Junkie is that it has proven its validity – it’s been around for a long time. The downside? The user interface is looking tired, you do need a working knowledge of HTML, and it takes some time to set up and customize.

Plans range from $5 to $265 per month, depending on how many products you wish to sell. Most users integrate PayPal with E-Junkie, leading to additional PayPal fees. It also means a clunky checkout, potentially costing you sales.

Grab your piece of the online action!

Building a profitable online retail business takes work, but the potential is undeniable. With sales in the billions, and 5.9% expected growth for the next five years, now’s the time to get in on the action.

Already using a great e-commerce platform? Share with us in the comments!