One thing about having a bottling machine is that to make it pay it needs to put lots of beer into bottle. Selling large amounts of beer needs a major partner, one way or another. Either that, or a big tied estate. We started planning our recent expansion back in February. We attracted grant approval around the beginning of June and ordered the equipment soon afterwards.
By July I was starting to think about how I was going to get full use of our machine. How we might increase the volume of sales. It's a tricky one to start selling to supermarkets, with the inevitable accusation from the beer geek world of selling out, but realistically I knew it was an essential business step.
For various reasons we wanted to be selective. Partly, I guess, because I didn't want to be seen as selling to a low-cost, pile-em-high type operation. More-over, I don't like to over-sell and then have difficulty delivering. Booths, who have 29 stores in the North West of England and 7 in Cumbria focus much more on quality rather than attracting purely on price. I had long considered the friendly family run business, an ideal place for our products.
The founders ethos was simple "Sell the best goods available, in attractive stores, staffed with first class assistants.” - and over 160 years later this easy rule makes an attractive place to buy food and drinks. If there is a problem it's that there are far too many nice, tasty things to buy resulting in me buying too much quality, and then feeling the need to enjoy it all before it goes off. Cheese, that is our biggest downfall, and olives, and those nice Fudges crackers, and the nice continental cooked meats and.......
.....but this is not about my own weakness for scrummy things to consume, no, this is about our experience of pitching at a major retailer, the experience from beginning to end.
Having decided to properly seek a listing in this worthwhile outlet I started to research how I should do this. I hoped, and had been led to believe that their treatment of suppliers was slightly less daunting than bigger, nasty retailers.
After a short hunt on the interwebby thing I found a page that allowed me to propose my products to Booths. They have a nice and helpful website dedicated to inviting suppliers to pitch at their buyers. I filled out the form and back came an automated reply confirming receipt of my gallant attempt to attract their attention.
At this point I had no idea how long it might take to actually start talking to a real buyer. I knew that the original web-form is just the sort of filter that any buying department must need1. I imagined they got loads of applicants and might have a huge long backlog of people to sift through and form a shortlist. Never-the-less, I had hoped to get listed in time for Christmas.
To my surprise, less than a week later we received an invite to pitch at a meet-the-buyer event. Cool, perhaps we will get in before Christmas.
We were told that we had 15 minutes with the buyer, only 15 minutes. And we were told this would be very strict. We drafted a script. 5 minutes of pitch and 10 minutes of Q&A, we were informed.
Damn, they were not wrong. It was done by bells. A bell to say "all change" and a bell 5 minutes from the end of the session. The script went out of the window as it seemed our buyer just wanted to ask questions. We hurriedly tried to get in our points as much as we could; why we thought Booths and Hardknott were a perfect match.
Indeed, the whole experience seemed a lot like speed dating. Almost bizarre, but also exciting, challenging and quite rewarding, even if we felt unsure that we did the right thing. But John, our buyer, assured us he'd be in touch.
John did get in touch. Initially through his secretary inviting us for a more relaxed meeting. We have now met, mostly agreed the beers that will go into Booths and our supply price. We have yet to find out what the retail prices will be, but I imagine it'll be about right.
Sadly we were too late for Christmas. Just as well in reality. As is the case with these things, the expansion is only just getting up to speed. If they had ordered for Christmas we might not have been able to deliver.
I am told by John that the first official order3 will be placed in mid January and the beers will appear for February. Initially only in the 7 Cumbrian stores, but you know what you have to do if you want our beer in the other Booths stores.
It looks likely that they will be Continuum, Code Black, Azimuth and Queboid. Great choices John, if you don't mind me saying.
1One of the things I'd most like to change about the way my business is run is stopping every single cold caller wasting my time. And the time of others in the business. For example, just today I had sterilised an important fitting and had it in my hand, carefully keeping from all forms of potential microbial contamination. Ann was loading the grist case for tomorrows brew and other staff were fruitfully engaged cleaning up the brewery at the end of a brewday. The phone rang. It might be someone important. A customer perhaps wanting to buy beer. Damn, I had to put that fitting down on the sink and go ad answer the phone. It was a time-wasting cold caller. I had to go back and re-santitise the fitting.
I want a web-form for potential suppliers. And a nice, leggy2 secretary who tells cold callers that, if they don't mind, would they like to go fill in the damn web-form if they want to sell us owt.
2Yes, I'm a leg man. Breast is OK, but for the very best stir-frys I bone out legs. I do love to get my teeth into a good bit of thigh.
3Apparently the official order will be sent by fax. Now, I don't want to seem rude about a new customer, but are faxes not a little 20th century? Surely, for heavens sake, everyone does things through the internet these days?
I have been in business for nearly 10 years now, and although that nasty f word has cropped up from time to time, I really did think that the fax machine had been consigned to the same bin as the typewriter. What does the reader think? For goodness sake, do we need to call BT and get a fax line put in?
I've asked the question. I guess if we have to we'll get a fax line, but really.................