Every food client asks me the keys to How to Sell to Whole Foods. Whole Foods is like Apple… it is aspirational. Just look at food shows like Fancy Food and see the attention the Whole Foods buyers get as they traverse the aisles.
So what is the best way to learn selling Whole Foods? I said… find early stage food companies who have achieved shelf space either regionally or nationally and ask them to share their stories, the successes, challenges, and yes, aggravations! So that is where Meg Carlson comes in.
Meg is the CEO of Melt Organics that makes Rich & Creamy Melt® Organic all-natural buttery spreads for butter lovers seeking a healthier alternative. Available in original and honey flavors.
Meg and I agree that selling to Whole Foods is far more than having a great tasting product that is natural or organic. It requires understanding how to pitch your brand in a way to show you understand how to meet their Merchant needs as well their Marketing needs? You are not sure what I mean? That's why you need to learn how to sell to Whole Foods and why I am writing this series of articles to help you get prepared for that first buyer appointment.
New Product Development for Whole Foods
What did you do in your new product development to make your product attractive for the Whole Foods customer?
In the development of Melt, it was important to understand Whole Foods philosophy, advocacy initiatives, and the products they carry. Quality products are of the utmost importance and the product has to taste great. Melt already had under its belt. Certifications are also highly encouraged. Melt uses the highest quality,non-GMO and fair trade ingredients and its products were already certified Organic and Kosher. As a result of WFM preferences from its customers, Melt also pursued and obtained Fair Trade Fair for Life certification for its #1 ingredient, Virgin Coconut Oil, and Non-GMO Project (NGP) verification for its Honey Melt Organic. The Whole Foods customer values all of these attributes.
Why do you set your goal to sell your products in Whole Foods?
Whole Foods is perceived as the "Holy Grail" in the natural foods business. If you're not in Whole Foods, the perception by many key stakeholders may be that you're not successful. This can slow growth, even if your brand and products have significant mainstream distribution. Whole Foods has the cache that made Melt that much more desirable to our consumers, our partners and to our investors.
What hurdles did you overcome pitching the Retail Buyer?
A national distribution agreement takes time. For Melt, it took two years from our first introduction to secure national shelf placement with WFM.
We learned that Whole Foods prefers to verify that a product will move by brands selling into individual divisions first, however, the tough part of the situation is the category reviews regionally and nationally are all done at the same time.
We focused our energy on strategy, by approaching divisions that were already successful, already selling Melt or where we had relationships with buyers to provide testimonials to the selling power of Melt. We individually targeted East and West regions that we believed would be especially successful. Once we secured distribution in those regions, we went to corporate to make a formal presentation. Separately and simultaneously we needed to secure placement with the distributors preferred by each of the WFM divisions.
Potential Rejections from The Retail Buyer
Every sales call has potential areas for rejection... hurdles that can stop the discussion with the buyer. Did you get rejected?
Our first presentation surprisingly was to Whole Foods national buying group. We were received well, however they weren't ready for Melt yet. This is when we went back to the regional divisions to sell in. We got push back from the buyers that they already carried similar products. It was our job to really make the distinction between Melt and its competitors, and show why this product would be of interest to Whole Foods' customers. Once we were able to go back to the national buyers with divisional interest, the national buying group selected to carry Melt. With regards to the WFM Vendor Portal we had to verify the specific information posted to ensure accuracy.
What were the certifications you obtained, such as Fair trade, Rainforest Alliance, TransFair USA, Kosher, Organic, etc.
We use only the highest quality organic and non-GMO ingredients in Melt and Honey Melt. The certifications relevant for our products are Organic, Kosher, Non-GMO Project, and Fair Trade Fair for Life.
Whole Foods Portal Information
What was your experience with the Whole Foods Vendor Portal? Were you fully prepared the first time or did you need to go back multiple times before approval?
Once you're approved to sell, you request access to the Vendor Portal. We have not received our login documentation yet. We expect to receive that information shortly as we're going on shelves in September and October. (Here is an example of Whole Foods Northern California Portal Online Information)
The Whole Foods Sales Presentation
How did you create your presentation balancing the merchant needs and marketing needs?
Whole Foods national buying team is very specific on their presentation requirements. They provide you a one-page template for your presentation. In addition to the required one-pager, we prepared a deck (a deck is the term for a PowerPoint presentation) with supplemental information to answer any question they might have regarding Melt's go-to-market strategy, target market, competitive positioning, product details, certifications, etc. Whole Foods was very helpful. In the early stages they provided valuable feedback and direction about what we needed to do to succeed in selling in to Whole Foods. We made sure that our packaging was in full compliance with the FDA and their labeling protocol prior to the buyer pitch.
Each division also has preferences and may be interested in more detailed information than the one-pager. We found out that it's difficult to get a meeting without a food broker as most WFM buyers prefer the vendor relationship through broker representation.Women Entrepreneurs Solve a CupCake Dilema