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Know your buyer – expert tips for engaging a retail buyer and pitching your products

Date: November 06, 2019

Category: Industry news

Author: Jenni Day

A couple of weeks ago we met foodie champion and UK grocery expert, Karen Green, at food founders event, Bread & Jam. We quickly realised that Karen had a wealth of knowledge and insights that could be valuable to our members when trying to engage retail buyers. So, we invited her to our offices for a cuppa and a quick chat to find out more. 

Karen Green food mentor

GS1 UK: Hi Karen, thank you for sitting down and talking to GS1 UK today. Please can you tell us a little bit about yourself, how you got into the food industry and what you do now?

Karen Green: Hi, thanks for inviting me! I have always worked in retail! At the age of five I was doing a catwalk show at my father’s department store and I continued there as a Saturday girl. 

I studied retail marketing and psychology at university, and I was lucky enough to join Tesco graduate scheme as a trainee buyer working in the meat, fish and poultry department.

From there, I had an amazing first career as a buyer and then crossed the table to work in sales and commercial for food companies, culminating as sales director for ichiban sushi where we launched the Yumie brand. We went from zero to half a million pounds in sales in just six months.

In 2016, I decided I wanted a change of direction and set up Food Mentor, helping FMCG brands to go from just a product idea to listings in multiple retailers. 

I work with a variety of clients, making products from sausages to cookie dough, offering a combination of mentoring, strategy consultancy and hands-on sales support to help businesses to grow their sales profitably. I also deliver workshops for a number of organisations including Virgin Start-Up and Enterprise Nation.  

GS1 UK: During your time as a buyer for both Tesco and Boots, what lessons did you learn that you now pass onto businesses looking to sell into large retailers? 

KG: There are two key lessons I learnt as a buyer:

Firstly, that retailers do not have elastic shelves.

One of my biggest challenges as a retail buyer was being inundated with great new product ideas and having to decide which ones we could put on the shelf. 

We had a strict rule of one brand and one own-label for a sub-category, and a supplier was hard pressed to get us to break that rule. Also, as I was buying vitamins, companies would come in with massive ranges which just didn’t work. Niche brands were far more interesting as they were focused on their area of expertise.

Secondly, companies need to do their preparation and homework. A boss of mine once told me; “Fail to prepare and you, prepare to fail” - such a true statement. Several times, I had account managers - often from big corporations - who would come to sell to me, and I would ask, “have you been in our store?” 

Often it was obvious they just didn’t know our layout, ranges or anything about us. They had just come to sell me the range – that is not good enough. The majority of my training course on getting listed is about the preparation!

GS1 UK: You mention on your website that it is important to engage the right buyer at a retailer, but how do you know who is the right buyer for your brand?

KG: Sometimes, the right buyer is obvious – if you sell chilled-food-to-go i.e. sandwiches, then it is probably the chilled-food-to-go buyer. But, if for example, you have a vegan chocolate brand – it could be the food-to-impulse, confectionary, free-from or gifting buyer?  

So, you have to go back to first principles and think about the customer journey. Where would they logically look for your product? Is your brand’s “reason for being” based on being a high protein, low sugar snack (food to go) or is it a premium, single-variety bar (confectionary)?  

Answering these questions will help you to identify the right buyer for your products. 

Sometimes the retailer may feel you have not got it right for their store, but, hopefully, they will pass it to a colleague…and, if you are in the door, that is a good start!

GS1 UK: What are your top tips for engaging a retail buyer and when is the best time to approach them?

KG: I am a massive fan of pre-selling before you approach your buyer (we dedicate a whole module on this in my Pitch Perfect live course). 

Identify the buyer and then ensure that your social media and marketing is visible to them. For example, encourage your customers to ask if they can buy your product in that specific retailer in your social media feeds. Put out trade press releases and get as much coverage as possible, so the buyer will already be aware of who you are.

Another top tip is trying to warm up the buyer. This could be someone like me who may have the right person in their network, or trying to meet them at trade shows or meet-the-buyer events, such as the Virgin Start-Up Doing Business With Big Business, that I am chairing on 15 November 2019.

GS1 UK: How can small businesses make their brand stand out from the pack?

KG: There has to be a unique selling point that makes the buyer believe it is worth taking a punt on this brand versus all the others. This is especially true when a new category is being born. 

For example, in the Kombucha market there must between 10 and 20 brands, many of which are doing well. So, you need to provide evidence of why your brand is the one that will bring in footfall (demonstrating social proof helps here), grow the category (demonstrate added value or significant sales volume) and ultimately help them meet their KPIs.

GS1 UK: What are the most common mistakes you see small businesses making when they are starting out and what advice would you give to them?

KG: There are two mistakes that small branded producers make, and it is at the design stage. Firstly, they niche their market too small and secondly, they build in too much cost. 

If you look at the top ten UK Grocery brands, - like Walkers Crisps, Coca-Cola, Warburtons - they are all mass market and are made from relatively cheap ingredients. This enables the brands to benefit from a virtuous circle that includes:

  • Maximising sales volumes by appealing to as many people as possible
  • Raking in the best profits due to the lowest-cost recipes in terms of ingredients
  • Producing higher volumes means greater buying power
  • Holding the cash to invest in marketing to enable them to sell more

GS1 UK: You mentioned you run a live online course for food manufacturers called Pitch Perfect. Can you tell us a bit more about what you cover in this course and how businesses can access it?

KG: Of course! The objective is to help FMCG brands to get a listing in their target retailers or food service. There are four modules which go from identifying the right route to market to building the social proof, and then, how to find and approach the buyer in the right way. We also throw in bonus courses on negotiation skills and confidence tricks to help with those taxing meeting situations.

I have already run it with the first cohort, and we got five-star ratings across the board. Attendees have already got listings in Ocado, Booths and Sainsburys!! 

GS1 UK: Thank you so much for sitting down with us today. Do you have any final words of wisdom for small businesses getting ready for success?

KG: Many people think they are rubbish at selling. Indeed, I have a client who has been working with me on my course who is very quiet, has a classically introverted personality, and really hates selling. But after following my course, she pitched effortless to get a meeting with Ocado and now has the listing. 

There is no one more passionate about selling your product than you are and, with the right training, you can easily become your own sales director and save thousands of pounds on fees and commission.


If you would like to connect with Karen or sign up for her Pitch Perfect course, you can follow her on LinkedIn or find out more at Happy pitching!