From summer fête to supermarket: how to get your product on the shelves.

Getting your product onto the shelves of a major retailer is no mean feat. SmallBusiness.co.uk speaks to Maria Hellyer, co-founder of The British Curry Company, about how she managed to turn a few jars of curry sauce at a summer fête into Bombay Authentics, a brand that is now sold throughout the UK and exported to 12 countries throughout North America, the Middle East and Europe.

Where did it all begin for you?
I started the business in 2001 with my business partner Patricia Forbes. We were both working mothers with a certain amount of experience in the food industry – Patricia had been a chef and I had worked for a company that sourced ingredients.

We had always joked after a good meal that we should sell the sauces that Patricia made and only decided to go for it after I’d been made redundant and had a long period out of work. We began very small, selling to delis and school fêtes and found that we were getting through our stock very quickly.

Where did you go from there?
At this stage we were still making the sauces ourselves. My husband built us a website and webshop and we started selling online to make the most of the demand, but to tell you the truth it wasn’t the right way to go for our product.

It meant posting jars of chutney and sauce to customers and about 40 per cent of them would arrive damaged. You really need to think carefully about whether mail order is right for your business. I wouldn’t go down that route again.

What about funding?
At the initial stages we funded the business ourselves. If you can self-finance it’s always a better option that taking on debt or negotiating an equity deal. When it’s your own money, you can sleep easier at night. As the business moved forward it was able to finance itself, using sales revenue to fund production and growth.

How did you start to scale up production?
We got in touch with manufacturers and started to screen different companies that would be able to make the product for us. Eventually we found a sauce manufacturer that seemed to have the same appreciation of raw materials and ingredients that we wanted for the brand, which was aimed at the premium end of the market.

Who were you selling to?
Strangely enough, we started by exporting to the US. Having gone to large supermarket chains in the UK and been told to come back when we had an established brand, we decided to get involved in a scheme run by UK Trade & Investment called ‘Passport to Export‘. It’s a programme designed to help new exporters with the training, planning and support needed to succeed overseas. If you’re eligible, they will even give you a grant.

Did you get a lot of help from UKTI?
Oh yes, we got tonnes of help, they are very eager for UK businesses to make the step into export. Why restrict yourself to the UK anyway? There are 50 million Americans that claim some sort of connection to England, so the market for British food is just huge.

The Anglo-Indian market was one of the fastest-growing food categories in the States at the time, so we realised that even if we could get a small share of it, we’d be doing well. If you think, the largest supermarket in the UK is Tesco, with 2,000 stores nationwide, Safeway has 2,000 stores just on the west coast of the States. Around 40 per cent of our business is export now.

A lot of small firms might be wary of the larger players, how did you find dealing with a much bigger business?
I almost expected to be taken advantage of, but that wasn’t the case at all. Waitrose recognised that we were a brand with integrity and a good story and were very considerate of the fact that we hadn’t dealt with big buyers before.

We met with the buyer from, cooked him lunch and talked it through. They pledged to work with us and push the brand and seemed as excited not to be working with the average, suited and booted business person as we were to be working with them. I mean, we’re astute businesswomen, but we’re also real people. I think in business, there is a lot to be said for being liked.

Related: Breaking into supermarkets – Getting your product on the supermarket shelf can turbo-charge your sales. Marc Barber finds out how it is done.

Tips on getting shelf space in a supermarket

Securing shelf space for your products in the fast moving consumer goods world is tough. A handful of big names control the majority of the market and margins can be slim. Simon Dunn, managing director of brand development company Product Chain, offer these tips for getting your product listed. Next time you walk into your local supermarket branch, it could be your product sitting on the shelf.

Move quickly

The supermarket sector is a fast-moving industry that changes on a whim, reacts instantly to media stories or celebrity preferences and, above all, waits for nobody. The rule is simple: those who won’t – or can’t – move quickly enough to seize the opportunities will be left behind.

Luckily, small business owners have the luxury of making decisions quickly and putting them into practice faster than large firms, without having to trawl through a long and complicated chain of approval. Entrepreneurs need to have their finger on the pulse of the continually changing market place: its needs and its immediate desires.

Respond to customer wants and needs

Read the editorial in style magazines. They tend to be full of great inspiration and can offer many useful ideas, yet the skill lies in turning it into something marketable. If a brand gets it right, innovation will drive market share.

By following market these consumer trends entrepreneurs can gain an insight into what will sell and what won’t. Look at movements within the industry – from the emerging popularity of farmers’ markets facing up to the supremacy of supermarkets and seasonal foods, to the effect of celebrity chefs on the success of certain ingredients.

Understand your target market

Consumers are getting ever more demanding; they want choice and will react and pay for relevant innovation. Think about who your product will appeal to, but then make sure you are not pigeon-holing yourself into a narrow niche. This will help you develop you marketing and business plans more effectively.

Think about your unique selling point

Sometimes it helps to ask a friend or acquaintance who has no connection to your business questions like, Would you buy this product? Do you think it has health benefits? Does it create a negative impact on the environment?

If that person can match the right answers to these types of questions, then you know your brand matches your product. You can also ask, Can this product stand up against competitors?

Strengthen your business plan

New product development needs to be backed with a strong business plan, focusing on market penetration and rapid distribution. After all, if the consumer can’t buy a product, it doesn’t matter how much they want it. This is vital no matter how small an outfit you are operating.

Develop a marketing plan

The best penetration in terms of getting your message across and often the most cost effective – a top priority for small businesses – is third-party endorsement or PR. You need to stimulate interest, and people will take more notice of what’s being said by an independent media source than by a paid for piece of advertising.

Get your packaging and branding right

Shelf presence is all about catching the customer’s eye – for the right reasons. The strongest brands are developed by a highly skilled team of sales personnel, technology experts and administrators, but if you don’t have those resources try to keep packaging practical and the design clean and simple.

Promote communication

This is about planning for every eventuality. Ensure that your relationship with the retailer once shelf space is secured runs as smoothly as possible. Don’t let unnecessary glitches ruin your product before it has even been given a chance.

Secure adequate stock

Make sure that you have enough stock to cope with orders. It’s all very well securing shelf space and orders, but if you don’t have the products to fulfil them, your retailer is going to become frustrated very quickly.

Adam Wayland

Adam was Editor of SmallBusiness.co.uk from 2006 to 2008 and prior to that was staff writer on sister publication BusinessXL Magazine.

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