I want to piggyback on Kathleen’s post on finding a sales rep. I haven’t been posting much lately but you may remember that I am a buyer and retailer. My perspective is as a buyer who works with sales reps and I have a lot of DE friends too. This is my view based on what I have gathered from DEs and sales reps.
Sales reps prefer to take on a line that has already established a track record. This is no different from any kind of selling. It is always easier to build sales on an existing product than it is to develop sales for a new or untried product. Accordingly, before you ever try to hire a sales rep, your best bet is to sell your line yourself by opening a few accounts. By opening a few accounts, I mean you should try to establish a few house accounts with retailers on your own. Also, having house accounts means you can show the prospective sales rep how well your line sells through. “How well your line sells through” means the amount of time it takes for your retailers to turn inventory. “Turn inventory” means how quickly your products sell for them and how frequently they can potentially reorder the styles they purchase from you. In other words, when you first approach a sales rep -and even though you may have the greatest thing since sliced bread, so do about a hundred other DEs who also called that sales rep to ask about picking up their line- you need some proof. If you have a few accounts you’ve gotten on your own, you have more standing with a rep to take your line.
Having your own accounts is very important to the sales rep because sales reps only get their commissions on a sale when you make delivery. A sales rep will want to know that you have a history of shipping on time because it’s common for new lines to have problems with the first few deliveries. If you miss shipping dates, you’ll end up with canceled orders, and since reps are only paid by delivery, they don’t want to risk selling a lot of product that you won’t be able to deliver on time. If you have never produced a line before, you have no idea if you’re going to miss orders because you couldn’t ship by the cancel date or you don’t know how many returns (for legitimate reasons) you might have. Sales reps don’t want to work their butts off only to have you mess up the delivery because of inexperience. So, get some accounts on your own and get some experience before you approach a sales rep.
Another thing is to get some press if you can. If you can figure out creative ways to get some media attention and get your product into magazines or trade publications, this will give you some marketing oomph to back you up. Once you have done those two things, you will have an easier time of being able to attract a good sales rep. Of course, you can probably get a rep without doing any of this but if you do this, you have a better chance of success. You’re better off doing some legwork first.
Once you do that, start going to trade shows. Most people will tell you to register as a prospective exhibitor but that means you often have to pay to attend. In my opinion you should register as a buyer -if you can- because it’s free. However you can get in, do it. When you’re there, pay attention to who is really working the booth; which has buyers and which has buyers who are writing orders. Look for sales reps with a mix complimentary to yours and know your territory.
Another way to find a sales rep is to ask your buyers. This is another reason why it pays to open some accounts first. If you’re selling to stores, tell their buyers that you are looking for a rep and ask for recommendations. Buyers know so much more about who is a good rep than you can tell through interviews. Buyers are in the best position to know who calls to follow up, chat about new items, sends line sheets regularly and makes appointments regularly. Some reps don’t do anything; they are reactive. You want a proactive rep and buyers know who they are. You can also find a rep by placing ads in trade publications, at trade shows and market buildings. Most markets have bulletin boards where you can pin an ad on a card so make some up in advance.
At the same time, once you find a rep, that’s not all there is to selling a line. Many DEs go through a few reps before they find one that’s a good fit. It’s not as though you can just hire a rep, sit back and kick up your heels, you also need to provide adequate sales support for your rep (more about that in a later post) to ensure they can really sell your line well.