As consumers, we walk through the aisles of the grocery store trying to quickly grab what we need and get out. Sometimes we shop for bargains and sometimes we give pause to a new product on the shelf, but mostly we want to get our goods and be on our way. Hardly do we ever give any thought to what it took for that product to get on the shelf in the first place. We’re just going to tell you, it takes a lot.
If you’re at a supermarket chain that carries the big brands, there’s not much to consider ― their spot has been pretty much guaranteed on the shelf through years of brand development, adequate advertising and substantial funding. But if you look at a different grocery model ― one such as Whole Foods Market that seeks out new, exciting products ― it looks very different.
It is extremely challenging for a product to stand out from the crowd to even become considered by a grocer ― we’re going to use Whole Foods as an example ― and once it gets there, it only gets more difficult.
“Getting on is the hard-easy part, staying on is the hard-hard part,” Lynda Berrios, owner of Little Spoon Consulting and previous WFM Local Forager for the Southwest Region, told HuffPost. And that’s not because grocery stores are unusually difficult retailers, but because competition in the food world is stiff.
But even the “hard-easy” part doesn’t feel the slightest bit easy. George Milton of Yellowbird Sauce shared his story about getting into the grocery world with HuffPost. Yellowbird Sauce, a different kind of hot sauce company, has been in Whole Foods for about three years now and is currently in 150 stores.
“First, you have to have a cool, trendy product,” Milton explains. “Whole Foods does care about sustainable and organic, but they also care about selling stuff and making money. Therefore, the buyers will always be more interested in a product that identifies with a current trend,” Milton told HuffPost.
Next, says Milton, you have to get it into their hands.
“This is tricky,” he admits, “and it is on an annual category review schedule that is also constantly shifting. Hot sauce, for example, is only looked at once a year, from the middle of December to the middle of January so, even if you send product to the right person, you’ve got to get it in that time frame.”
Once you get it to the right place at the right time, you have to stand out.
“This has a LOT to do with product branding. We were told in no uncertain terms that our branding was pretty much the key to Whole Foods taking a chance on our brand in the first place,” explained Milton. That’s because as consumers, we’re drawn to the way something looks first and foremost.
“The challenges of partnering with Whole Foods are also what make them so exciting to work with,” Rudolph explained to HuffPost. “Before we launched our mac and cheese, I sent prototypes to our buyer in the Northeast ― he sent me a note with pages of feedback. Pages! Everything from recommendations on product to packaging. I don’t know many buyers that would take that kind of care and effort for a supplier, especially one as small as we were. It took a lot of work to address all of his concerns, but we did it, and our product and packaging are both better because of it. While it hasn’t always been easy, that’s the sign of a true partnership.”
“I communicated back and forth with various buyers for about a year,” Rudolph continued, “building relationships, sending samples, staying in touch. For our new product lines, it takes us anywhere from five to sixteen months depending on the time of year we reach out.”
Yep, more than a year of work just to get on the shelf.
Once you finally do get the green light to stock the shelves, as a small company you’re faced with the logistics of stocking, say, 40 stores, and figuring out how to ramp up production to meet the need, which is exactly what happened to Yellowbird Sauce.
“We had to face the reality of supplying that many stores as a small, craft brand,” said Milton. “We weren’t really ready for making that much sauce nor were we ready for the marketing time and money that goes into being successful in that many accounts.”
That’s not even the last challenge, because as Berrios said before, staying on is the “hard-hard” part.
Rudolph agreed, saying, “The highest hurdle for any new food company is awareness. Grocery stores are crowded with brands. Consumers have so many choices, so we need to position ourselves to stand out. After getting our product into Whole Foods, we looked at ways to connect with the customer: in-person demos, securing off-shelf displays, and partnering with their social media team. For us, it’s not just about getting boxes on shelf and hoping for the best; it’s about reaching people and changing the way they think about their favorite foods.”
But even then, you never know what might hit. Berrios says that even once a brand has “made it” the success is not necessarily guaranteed to last.
“These brands get taken down in a heartbeat by a recall or they might use an ingredient that they source somewhere else and then that ingredient gets recalled and they then have to pull thousands of millions of dollars off the shelf. And maybe they have recall insurance, but maybe they don’t. Either way that’s a huge loss that can sink a business so quick.” She points out that in the grocery world, “there’s ‘making it’ in moments. Maybe there’s a moment that you’ve made it, but around the corner there can be a pitfall, a recall, a PR issue or something.”
Kelly Stevens of Seven Creative, and also the former art director for the Southwest region of WFM, gives a perfect example.
“There’s a bunch of companies that started making kale chips and they seem to be doing pretty well, they seem to be anchors on the shelf and all of the sudden the big boys decide they can make them too ― faster, cheaper, quicker ― and all of the sudden they’ve wiped out a whole line and sort of consumed it,” Stevens told HuffPost. “I don’t think Whole Foods is as guilty of this, they’ll try to keep a local brand, but when somebody is undercutting your price by three bucks a bag then your made it has just turned into a has been.”
And then there’s the consumer’s lack of brand loyalty. People are always looking to try something new, and that makes it hard for a brand to develop staying power. Milton says, “There is a lot of brand turnover in the grocery world, especially in a store like Whole Foods that has, as part of their model, that they take chances on younger, hipper brands. There’s some stat about the percentage of food brands that are still on the shelves after a given time period. I think it’s something like 95 percent don’t make it through three years.”
With all of these challenges, why does anyone even try to make it in grocery?
“Most people are driven by a blind passion,” says Stevens.
Berrios explains that people are “passionate about the product they’re making, and they’re smart enough and diligent enough to get it going. But the vast majority of food entrepreneurs don’t even know what it is that they’re walking into until they’re so far in it that the extraction process is even messier and more complicated than just figuring out how to move forward.”
Sounds bleak, but Stevens and Berrios both assure that it’s really not as bad as it sounds. “Even though it is a tough road, and the margins are tiny, people are really driven to move into this industry because of a passion, because of the story, because it comes from this really personal place ― and that’s what consumers connect with.”
And passion is at the heart of many great brands.
Of course, not every food product goes through the same process of getting on the shelf, but this is one journey a product can take before it makes it to your kitchen. Remember that next time you spot a new brand of salsa on the shelf at Whole Foods or any other similar grocery retailer. There’s a whole lot of work and passion that gets packed into just one 16-ounce jar ― far beyond the actual making of the product.