You’ve raided your life savings to make your big idea a reality. Now it exists, you need the world to see it – and buy it. So how do you secure a big name stockist?
This is a question most entrepreneurs have to grapple with and there’s no simple answer. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as Googling the right product buyer at the store you want to sell in and calling them – wouldn’t that be great?
One entrepreneur who knows exactly how big a challenge it can be is Jonnie Matthew, co-founder and chief executive of sandal brand Solillas.
He, and his business partner and wife Sarahjayne, have succeeded in getting their product on to the shelves of some of the UK’s most well-known retailers. Here he shares their experience and offers his top tips for emulating their success.
Partners: Husband and wife team Jonnie and Sarahjayne Matthew are selling a lot of sandals
Over the past seven years, Jonnie Matthew, 35, and his wife Sarahjayne, 34, have turned their start-up sandal business into a popular fashion brand, stocked in Office, Liberty, Selfridges, Topshop, House of Fraser and Schuh.
Such retailers now account for 90 per cent of their sales, which last year topped £1m in total.
Since 2014 they have sold over 100k pairs of Menorcan-inspired sandals and they are now crowdfunding to raise just over £150,000 to grow their e-commerce platform, invest in digital marketing to capitalise on their most recent partnerships – especially in the US where they have secured Nordstrom as a stockist for 2018.
‘Breaking into the competitive and oversaturated fashion market was no easy feat,’ says Jonnie, co-founder and chief executive.
‘When we started Solillas, Sarahjayne and I had no idea how it would pan out. We kept on our normal day jobs [in private equity for Jonnie and graphic design for Sarahjayne], working on the brand in the evenings and weekends.
‘That way, we still had a regular income but could pursue our dream together.
‘After a few years the business really started to take off, with some big orders from big brands, such as Urban Outfitters and Office. It was only then that we both quit our jobs to run the business, and we’ve steadily grown in success ever since, winning a prestigious Best New Business title at Drapers Footwear Awards in 2015.’
Why selling on the high street still matters
‘It’s not easy getting into high street retailers. Buyers are bombarded with new products every day, so products need to really stand out,’ says Jonnie.
‘But before you start chasing buyers, you have to think carefully about whether a high street retailer is the best way to take your business forward.
‘E-commerce has opened up a whole new realm of possibilities that are especially useful to start-up brands due to the relative low cost of set up. It also gives you more control and a higher margin, helping you to grow sustainably.
‘For many fashion brands, the answer will still be high street retail. Customers want to try on new products for fit and style, and it helps having a tangible product to reassure on quality.
‘With Solillas, we actually took a dual approach. We knew that high street retail was where we wanted to be, but we first focused on building the brand on our own, through our website and social media.’
The company has nearly more than 38,000 likes on Facebook, 10,000 followers on Instagram and 2,000 on Twitter.
Socialising: The company developed its brand through social media to start with
Seize opportunities to get your first big break
If good fortune comes your way, you need to seize it – but getting ahead also means making your own luck.
‘After we’d built a good website and got a few initial sales to get us going, we advertised in some magazines and fashion websites,’ says Jonnie.
‘Luckily, a buyer from Urban Outfitters saw our ad and bought a pair of our shoes for herself. She loved the unique design and quality of the shoes and emailed us an invite to come and pitch to her.’
In the pitch, Jonnie says they primarily focused on conveying their brand messages, which he says are a unique design story and quality production.
‘We explained how we’d been inspired by the traditional Menorcan sandal and went on to source the best quality materials to develop an update to the design.’
In a nutshell, that’s exactly what the company does – designs shoes out of a studio in Kingston-upon-Thames in south-west London and manages the handmade manufacture of them in second-generation family factories in Spain.
‘We also told the buyers about our plans for the future – designs, fabrics, styles, and the direction we could take the business in. That got them excited.’
On sale at Office: the fashionable Solillas sandal brand can be found alongside Birkenstock
What you need to tell the buyer in your pitch
Jonnie stresses the importance of including all of the practical information that a buyer will need to know during an effective sales pitch – which he lists as production and delivery capability; marketing and audience insights; and brand USPs.
Of course, there are lots of other questions retailers can and will ask. ‘Typical retailer questions we were asked included: What are our best sellers? Do they tend to size larger, smaller, or stay true to size? How and where are they made? What does the packaging look like?’
He says that many of the retailers he has pitched to also wanted to know what other retailers the company was working with, or hoped to work with. It helps them align their own branding.
‘It’s important to have a good idea of who you would like to pitch to, even if you’ve not yet approached them,’ advises Jonnie.
Alternatively, if you are pitching to your first retailer, you can also think about whether you would offer that brand exclusivity, and whether that changes any other features of the deal, such as line runs and costs.
‘We found that some retailers were particularly interested in our plans for the future. They wanted a long-term relationship with Solillas, but needed reassurance that we would have more products in the pipeline should the current range be successful. So, I would advise allowing yourself to daydream so you can go in with some great plans and ideas.’
Solillas sells direct from its own website as well as through major high street retailers
Be prepared to act quickly
Timing is also crucial, especially if you get that big order – but you also need to be honest.
Jonnie said: ‘Once you’ve signed a successful deal, the process of getting into stores is likely to be fairly quick. Following our pitch to Urban Outfitters, we began production immediately and shipped our current surplus stock to their warehouses, ending up in stores within six months.
‘After our first season in Urban Outfitters, we got a call from the buyer at Office, and produced and delivered the shoes in just four weeks. So, it really does depend on the retailer.’
After our first season in Urban Outfitters, we got a call from the buyer at Office, and produced and delivered the shoes in just four weeks
He suggests that whatever timeframe they suggest, make sure you know your production and delivery capacity and never overstretch.
‘Retailers want good, solid, predictable relationships with their suppliers.
‘If you promise an order you can’t deliver, you’ll not only lose out on a great opportunity, you’ll damage your reputation in what is a surprisingly small community of fashion buyers.’
Nail your pricing
Getting everything sorted includes working out pricing and margins. You need to price your products competitively, yet still allow yourself enough of a margin to grow healthily.
‘We based our price on industry standards and worked up from there, leaving ourselves plenty of headroom,’ says Jonnie.
He says you should also price in delivery costs. ‘Retailers will expect products to be delivered on a specific date, packaged in a specific way – and that doesn’t come cheap. Do your research and go in armed with all this information.
‘You should also discuss any other costs the retailers may charge, such as photography and marketing contributions and factor those in as well. It’s often easier for buyers if they have a single cost for everything combined, rather than itemised or variable costs.
‘Ultimately, you need to work closely with retailers so that they understand you, your business, and your product, and so that you understand what they need and want from the relationship.’
Quality: Each pair is handmade at a second-generation family-run factory in Spain
Build a strong relationship with the retailer
Building a close relationship with a retailer brand can be a great source of support in a tough retail world. ‘As the relationship develops, they will influence your brand more than you might expect, but, in return, they’ll help you grow at a pace that suits you.
‘For example, Office has been a huge support and influence on our brand. It is the perfect example of what sort of relationship we hoped we would build with retailers. It understands the issues we have as a small company, as well as the benefits, like our short time to market, small quantity minimums, and a very flexible approach.
‘For several years, we worked on an exclusive basis with it for the UK market as the opportunity to grow the brand and the commitment it could give us on volume and brand support was so significant.’
Whatever the nature of your business, your own route into retail will be unique but, says Jonnie: ‘By following our approach, you stand a great chance of getting your fashion brand into a high street retailer and growing a popular and successful business.’
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