If there's one thing we’ve learned since Brexit, it’s that the UK’s small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) always have big ambitions.
No one ever said it was easy. Some of Britain’s largest and most influential businesses started out with nothing but an idea. Often, the most successful had very little initial investment, but made up for their lack of capital with a great product and a drive to succeed.
It’s easy to forget that even household names had to start somewhere, and for many, that meant getting their product onto the shelf for the first time.
Last month’s Markit manufacturing PMI climbed to a ten-month high, and despite a dip in retail sales, data from Capital Economics shows spending on the high street is “going gangbusters” and is expected to outperform pessimistic forecasts. British products are flying off the shelf as quickly as they are stacked – but how do SMEs get them there in the first place?
Back in the early nineties, Will King had a problem: every time he shaved, he got razor burn from conventional foams and gels. After researching and testing, King created his first product, Essential Shaving Oil. King of Shaves, the male grooming brand and household name, was born.
Initially, “it was a lucky shot” that saw his product stocked – and audacity helped. “We got into Harrods in September 1993 by faxing Mohamed al Fayed directly. I got his number and just went for it.
It paid off, and soon enough – because of the unique nature of the product, and the fact it solved a problem – his brand was standing alongside established names in Boots.
But luck can only get you so far, and knowing your market is vital. “Often what people want is right in front of them”, says Josh Stevens, managing director of The Body Source, which makes health and beauty products and appliances. “Sitting there convincing yourself of the need for a product with no evidence isn’t going to work. We do focus groups, surveys and market research to make sure people actually want the product – don’t stop until you know it’ll sell.”
Brigette Hardy, head of food buying at Fortnum & Mason, says that she “always finds it odd [that some customers] come in with no idea of what we sell or what the range is”. She talks of successful pitchers carrying out shelf gap analysis – that is, knowing the products on an individual retailer’s shelf, and identifying a gap where their product will fit. “See what we haven’t got, and convince me that I need it,” she says.
King talks of the modern struggle. “It’s hard these days to create something that doesn’t yet exist. You need to prove that the demand is there. What problem does it solve? What desire does it create? Can you create a desire?”
Make yourself known
In today’s data-driven world of e-commerce, it’s easier than ever to set up shop online. Sites from Ebay to Etsy and thousands in between offer the opportunity to sell your products in a place accessible to millions, while social media is an indispensable tool for nurturing brand awareness.
When searching for the latest delicacy to grace the shelves of Fortnum & Mason, Hardy scours everywhere from Italian farmers markets to niche web-retailers. There’s a stream of “innovation by small producers” she says, but not all are web-savvy. She has learned from experience that they might not have business card or website, and those that do don’t always update when they have a new product.
Stevens started importing and selling products online aged 13. Now 27, he’s a digital native. His company has recently secured deals with Argos and Asda. But he didn’t go looking for them – they found him on Amazon Marketplace.
Making yourself visible online is crucial. According to Stevens, most people shop online first, and for young or small businesses, there’s no barrier to entry.
Aesthetics & Authenticity
If you’re approaching a pitch, it goes without saying that you need to bring the product with you for the buyers to see, hold and try. The way it looks in hand, and eventually on shelf, shouldn’t be underestimated.
Stevens makes a point about the convergence of aesthetics on and offline. “When you walk into a shop, you don’t look at the product description, you look at the product itself.”
The same applies online, and having high quality, professional photos that resonate with your brand’s identity can set your product aside among the hubris of similar items returned by a Google search.
King adds that, no matter the size of your business, having a genuine story will make you relatable and help you to stand out from more clinical competition. “Brands need authenticity and truisms – a genuine story behind the product – it doesn’t matter what it is, but you need a human singularity.
When pitching to buyers, the most important thing you must get right is your price point. How much is the product? What are the margins? And does it fit within the price range of the shop you’re pitching to? Hardy emphasises the last of these: “a product could be the best in class but if the price is too high for our shelves, I won’t be able to sell it”.
Overestimation is the curse of the first-time pitcher. Turning up to a panel with estimated first-year profits of £10m without quantified evidence of past performance is going to waste the buyer’s time and give you a bad name. “A lot of people make massively overly optimistic sales and growth curves”, says King. So be realistic – “oaks can only grow from well nurtured acorns.”