Selling to Grocery as a Producer-Processor Dairy Farm:  Chain Stores vs. Individual or Independent Stores

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Once you have taken the time to get your products and packaging in compliance with the requirements of the store and state and federal regulators, you will need to consider the specific stores you are targeting as potential customers. Some grocery brands do business on a regional, national, or international basis and encompass hundreds or even thousands of stores. The decision-makers and requirements for getting into large chain stores can pose a high bar to entry for a small dairy business new to grocery. To serve the needs of a large chain, a producer may need to team up with other farmers in a producers’ association. In some parts of the country cheese producers have had success working together to pool their resources and influence to find a place on the shelf at large chain stores. As a group they can serve more stores than they ever could as individual producers.

Smaller store chains or individual store locations that operate independently of a large national or regional grocery brand, are more likely to do business at a scale that can be served by an individual producer-processor dairy farm. Independent stores have a less complicated decision-making structure and often enforce fewer rules on their vendors. At an independent grocery store you will likely be able to find someone who can make the decision of whether to begin selling your product inside of the store itself rather than at a central business headquarters that may be far away. You can either call the store directly and ask to speak to the store or dairy manager to set up a meeting, or put on a professional outfit and go visit the store. If you visit the store, make sure to bring a price sheet/product list, some printed information about your business (preferably with pictures and your logo in color), and some samples of your most delicious products. You may want to go to the store’s back entrance where vendors make deliveries and knock on the door. Introduce yourself to the receiver and let them know that you would like to meet the store manager to tell them about your farm and the line of products you offer. Working with independent locally owned and operated grocery stores is usually a good first step to entering grocery sales.

However, as your business grows, you will likely need to devote a significant amount of time and effort to getting in touch with buyers at larger chain stores. Unlike independent stores, buyers at chain stores are usually located at a central office that may be a long way from where you live and do business. These buyers are often not easy to reach. Since a huge number of businesses want to gain access to them, their contact information is usually not easy to find. Buyers at chain grocery stores are usually referred to as “category managers” or “category analysists.” They have access to a large amount of sales information that may span dozens or even hundreds of stores. One way of figuring out who you need to speak to at a grocery chain that you would like to do business with is to search for the business’ category manager or analyst online or on LinkedIn. Dairy is often combined with frozen food to form one category. Knowing this may be helpful as you make your search.

Another place where you may have luck getting to know buyers for larger chains is at conferences, food/trade shows, and other industry events. Be aware of the food-related events in your region and make an effort to attend. Pay close attention to the list of speakers and sponsors that are involved in these events. If a chain is acting as a sponsor or sending one of its employees to speak at an event, then make a point of asking a question at a session or finding the company booth in the trade show. Introduce yourself and your business and be friendly. Strike up a conversation with them in line for lunch. Bring a business card, sales information, and (if they ask for it) a price and product list. If the individual from the grocery business you are targeting is not a decision-maker for dairy, that’s no problem, continue to form a genuine bond and politely ask whether they know who you can contact at their business to have an opportunity to sell your goods. It’s important to keep in mind, that at all levels of scale, if you form a relationship with someone, they will generally feel invested in trying to help you. People like to be helpful, so if you show them that you are kind and courteous, then they’ll assume that you’ll translate those qualities into the service you provide. It is very likely that they will make an effort to give you a chance and put you in contact with the person you need to speak with at their business.