Preparing a beverage brand for a supermarket deal – 4 insider tips

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Ben Vear is currently Commercial Director with Minor Figures, an Unleashed customer which makes cold brew and plant-based milks for coffee lovers. He has more than a decade of high-level experience in the UK and European food and beverage business – with both start-up and challenger brands as well as major FMCG firms. Here are his insider tips on what it takes to land a major retail deal.

After a shocking 19 months for challenger brands, the dream of landing a big retail listing is now a tantalising possibility for food and bev start-ups. Shopping is edging back to normal and buyers are starting to look for new lines. Which means food & bev entrepreneurs are now honing their pitches once again.

But what does that even look like?

I’ve taken my share of food & bev brands to market over the years. And what I’ve found is there’s a gap between what challenger brands think they need to do to land a supermarket deal – and what’s really important.

So here are my four insider’s tips on landing a retail deal for a food or beverage brand, based on over a decade’s experience in this space.

New beverage brand

After a tough 19 months, retail buyers are once more looking for new food and beverage brands.

1. Think about it from the buyer’s point of view

People in the food & beverage scene often make assumptions about what retail buyers are looking for. Big-selling lines, right?

Well not always. Or at least, it’s not the first thing they’ll look for.

You’ve got to understand that it takes a lot of time, money and effort to set you up as a supplier. From an individual point of view there’s also reputational risk for the buyer. You won’t see it, but it can be embarrassing, internally, if someone backs you only to have you fall over at the first hurdle.

What I’m saying here is that most buyers are – in the first instance – looking for a safe bet. Your job is to convince them that’s you – and the best way to do that, is for it to be true.

Basically a lot of the advice that follows will come back to this point: to land that big contract you need to get your house in order first – with the rights systems and processes in place – then demonstrate that when you pitch.

Buyers are looking for you to have your ducks in a row.

2. Plan for the problems success brings

If it hasn’t yet been stress-tested, something as simple as your sales admin process can choke off productivity when done at scale. The right retail deal can snowball your visibility, leaving you scrambling to cope as the orders roll in. So you need to build in your capacity from the start, rather than trying to fix things reactively.

I’m not saying you should hire staff before they’re needed. But do ask yourself ‘what would this process look like at 10x the volume’, then put in place the systems that will manage that scenario.

Repeat sales are an easy example. Don’t take these over the phone or copy and paste them from email – instead consider investing in a platform which allows you to import those huge spreadsheets of orders the supermarkets will send you, or something that you can connect to an EDI, which many of the larger outlets use to place orders. That way the business you’ve already won won’t limit your ability to bring on new customers.

The next step is to take that mindset and apply it to your:

  • Stocktake process
  • Production capacity
  • Fulfilment process
  • Stakeholder reporting

And so on.

The last thing you want is to land that big retail deal only to find you can’t deliver on time and in full, or upload your promotions reliably, because all your staff are playing catch-up.


Unique ingredients catch attention, but you need to demonstrate security of supply

3. Know your suppliers (and ensure they know you)

Do your suppliers know you’re gunning for growth? And do you know which lines they can support at scale – and what might max out?

Because, sure, that single-origin angora goat milk you sell at the farmers’ market might be a great product. But if you think you can just triple your order overnight by emailing your supplier, you’re in for a rude awakening.

In short: talk to your suppliers often, and find out what they can – and can’t – help you with, if business takes off. You’d be surprised how many beverage brands have a supplier network that can’t support them beyond a cottage-industry scale, or that have limitations their customers aren’t aware of

Ultimately supplier management is just part of playing in the big leagues. Before you pitch for that big supermarket listing, ask yourself a few questions:

  • Can I track my suppliers’ performance? Which metrics matter to me?
  • Do I know each supplier’s different lead times – and do I factor that into my reordering?
  • What are my backups in case of emergency?
  • Do I have multiple suppliers for the same ingredients?

To ensure you can scale with the growth that comes with a large supermarket contract, speak to your suppliers often and have a set of metrics which you can use to hold them to account, while also giving them lots of notice of the increase in your demand.

Proper inventory software makes managing stock expiry and recalls far simpler.

4. Don’t let audits be a drag

This is an extension of the “get your house in order” point – but I cannot stress enough how important traceability and transparency are.

Basically at some stage prior to landing a supermarket deal you’ll be going for Safe And Local Supplier Approval (SALSA) or an equivalent cert.

That will require you to demonstrate that you have “a system … to facilitate correct stock rotation and to ensure that raw materials are used within their shelf life,” to use SALSA’s terminology. You’ll also need the ability to track ingredients –as well as food-contact packaging – from your suppliers, through your system, and beyond to the point of sale.

So what’s the best way to do this? And what will SALSA (and by extension the supermarkets) want to see?

Well, what no one wants to see is expiry tracking and product recall processes hashed together with spreadsheets and hastily written internal documents.

What you ought to do – in my opinion – is deploy a proper software package that has these features baked in.

It will make passing your food safety audits a much, much easier process – and by extension, make landing that retail deal more realistic.

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Ben Vear

Guest article by Ben Vear. Ben is the Commercial Director at Minor Figures, which makes cold brew and plant-based milks for coffee lovers. He has more than a decade of high-level experience in the UK and European food and beverage business – with both start-up and challenger brands as well as major FMCG firms.

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