Friday, June 7, 2019

Working with Pet Retailers Part 1

Life is strange how one thing leads to another, often unexpected adventure.  The names have been left out to protect the innocent and myself.  I didn't make a fortune, but did get quite an education.

I worked at an ad agency trying to expand a fundraising project for one of their clients.  Spotted an ad for an environmentally friendly cleaning product.  Thinking it might be suitable for fundraising I followed up and they seemed open.  My first encounter was a subject of another blog where I discussed how I got involved with a glass cleaner, but that also steered me towards working with pet retailers although a few more steps were involved.  You can read about that first encounter and how it led to learning about applications--starting on the fifth paragraph:

Selling the cleaner was not easy as I found out trying to demonstrate to a variety of prospects including household consumers and businesses with virtually no success.  One of the problems was that the product was a concentrate, but I was demonstrating it as a pre-mix.  A lot of confusion not understood by me or the prospects.

I became a nosy questioner and after annoying the manager I was directed to someone with higher authority.  The voice sounded familiar and I soon learned that I had done volunteer work with my new advisor.  This upped my confidence and I soon learned that the family owned company did not like the approach used by what I learned had been a franchisee.  I soon worked directly and although a variety of prospects were approached I soon gravitated to pets.  At this stage I was able to direct the small amounts I generated to my ad agency.

We hooked up with wholesalers (I took part with two), but only as an observer and later with delivery.  We soon realized the wholesaler was not going to sell the product by themselves so I became  a manufacturer's rep visiting lots of retailers further and further from home. 

These efforts (combined with other efforts at the ad agency) continued for quite awhile and then there was a  big surprise.  The company had sold franchise rights to a new person and I was introduced to and was encouraged to work for the new owners.  They had no objection as I worked on commission and down the line they agreed to pay my ad agency and cover part of my expenses. 

I ended up doing other commission work for them that actually carried on much longer.

Many approaches were tried with little success.  Somehow we got our breakthroughs with pet stores as the product seemed to work very well in cleaning up pet messes that are often the subject of family arguments.  One of the people involved was a pig farmer and he discovered that the product saved him money and time at cleaning up pig manure on slotted floors which encouraged us to approach feed stores, many of which also carried pet products.

After maybe half a year my new franchisee found out they had been cheated.  Promised exclusivity for Ontario they learned that another person had been promised the same thing.  Not only that, they came to appreciate the parent company had financial problems and had been "robbing Peter to pay Paul.'

For awhile it looked like that was the end of this particular venture, but the franchisee was stubborn and resentful.  He found a better formula for the product, had a free lancer he used design some labels and his wife dreamed up a new catchy name.   I took their side as it was clear they were honest and I was very sold on the product.

Soon I was going back to all the people I had sold the first product to and persuading most of them to try the new product.  The bulk of our sales had gone through three particular wholesalers and this time I led the sales effort, but with the new owner.  Over the years the original pet wholesaler expanded and I kept driving further and further to support the effort, even going on overnight trips as much as a week.

All the time we were learning more product info.  One of the biggest was de-skunking which at first we were accused of just masking the smell.  I learned that skunks sprayed an oil which our product easily broke up.  Another similar test involved anal glands which none of us knew what they were, but the owner's vet had a problem with the owner's dog and tried our product which worked better than other solutions he had tried.  Another strange one was cleaning grouting on floors and I started noting which floors had grouting and making the odd sale.

I grew up with a father who had an aversion/phobia to cage birds so naturally I felt a bit uncomfortable around them.  Plus I couldn't see any significant application, however it turned out they could.  Birds were sensitive to cleaners some of which could actually kill them.  Another bonus was learning that birds are more social than previously thought.  The fact that sensitive birds more than tolerated our product gave confidence with other owners who had concerns.

Back on the farming front (I did deal with a lot of farm feed suppliers) learned that our "cleaner" acted as a deterrent for pecking among chickens and other poultry.  Pecking is when one bird is identified as weak so that others can bully it (often to death) by pecking. 

One of the problems with making cold calls is getting past the gatekeeper who was usually instructed to limit interrupting the boss.  Often the first gatekeeper was the receptionist.  We developed a testimonial with a vet receptionist (actually she was met at a pet show).  She had found that she often got peed on by visiting dogs and out of desperation tried out product and found it more effective than what she had been trying.  I took this idea and introduced myself with saying "you are the first person to meet the pet owners"--usually a nod and "you are the first person to meet the pets" (another nod) and you are also the first person to get peed on"  Not always a big breakthrough, but often enough got her attention and she would be more receptive to what I had to say.

I enjoyed the driving, but also felt this was the most meaningful work I had ever done.  In the end I visited a lot of eastern Canada, but never made it to Newfoundland.  I met retailers and vet technicians from even further and managed to phone even more.  There is a lot of beauty in Canada and I learned lots of local history and culture.

Attended many trade shows for the pet market, but also for health food.   Learned lots of ways to sell.  One strategy built upon a talent for memory which basically was with all my traveling I could relate to almost any location visitors came from.   Started a lot of conversations that led to sales and expanding our network with the line "Where are you folks from? " I learned a lot at trade shows which you can find at

I followed up trade shows with phone calls pushing the idea of directing satisfied trade show buyer to local retailers.  I had run into some buyers who wouldn't buy at the show unless they were confident they could get a second purchase locally.  I had a list of retailers (most of whom I actually knew).  Then there were other people impressed with my demonstration, but reluctant to buy, who in many cases I was able to refer to a local retailer.  After a few shows the owner started to get upset with this.  I felt we had to support and encourage the retailers who weren't for the most part able to generate sales on their own.  The owner tended to measure trade show success with only the trade show sales while I started to see them as promoting the retailers.

Developed the concept of "champion."  These were usually retailers who loved the product and would actually do missionary work for us.  We used them as testimonials and referrals.

As our wholesaler dealt with mainly independent stores we needed a bigger wholesaler or chain stores.  A lot of franchisees of this bigger wholesaler were reluctant to buy outside the system, but a few felt we had a superior product and would try.   Every time I was able to get one of these stores on board I developed a list.  Since many of the franchisees knew one another their confidence in us was boosted.  I did this with a few other wholesalers and later moved to dog groomers who had their own wholesaler we eventually landed.

On a personal front my daughter decided she wanted to go to school in Halifax.  One concern was how to get her furniture there.  We had two wholesalers that operated in the Maritimes and realized their sales could be boosted with some contact.  The owner agreed to help pay some of my hotel expenses so that seemed a solution to a personal concern plus expand our sales effort.   I approached a few prospects that dealt with our Ontario based wholesalers as well as some new wholesale prospects.  Eventually I worked with a few new wholesalers and another of our Ontario wholesalers expanded east. 

One person who helped this project was my sister who lived just south of Montreal in Brossard.  I made sales calls in Ontario then at 4 pm headed to her house.  The next day I would get up at about 3 am with the idea I needed that much time to reach English speaking prospects in New Brunswick.  After a few such trips my brother in law remarked that an Anglophone would do better in Quebec than a Francophone would do in Ontario.  My French was pretty pathetic, but back at the ad agency was an account executive fluent in French and he helped work out a French introduction.  We had French labeling, but was surprised to learn that much of our competition came from familiar American English only products.  Check:

My first effort was on the way back from the Maritimes on the south shore opposite Quebec City.  It turned out to be  a difficult language problem that left me worn out and scared.  Later learned they had actually bought a big jug for their floors.  Not what I had emphasized in my pitch, but a good sale nonetheless.  I did try a vet near my sister's, but that was the extent of my francophone efforts on this trip.  I had spent time calling on some equestrian tack stores in Montreal because I knew there would not be a language problem having met the managers at Ontario trade shows.

Quebec visits tested my ability to face rejection, a common problem shared by me with all sales people.  Only one experience really hit me when rejected for speaking poor French.  Rejection is the one reason most people avoid selling and the most successful sales people have suffered the most rejection.  On one call I was greeted at the door by the owner who yelled that he had no time for salespeople and I should leave before I got a chance to tell what I was selling.  I later met him at a trade show where he had come with some other buyers from the same town who insisted he look at my product.  He became a dealer and his wife who owned a different store also came on board.

Always accumulating more product knowledge.  Learned the glass cleaner was very good on microscopes used by veterinarians.  Earlier had learned applications on golf courses that surprised me such as dealing with oil spills on grass.

A hardware store had been given a sample and found it was very good for cleaning his floors and took an order.  A month or two later he was upset that nobody asked for our product, but were asking for a nationally advertised product (that didn't compare very well).  It turned out that his priority was that people ask for a product.  I developed in my head the concept that people really see products as solutions to a problem and encountered some retailers who understood that concept.  They were not just selling products, but solutions to problems that all consumers have, but can't always understand.  Expertise was a strong selling point.  

In Miramichi, New Brunswick learned about Degus which are similar to guinea pigs.  A new concept was that animals benefit from companions.  The owner suggests two females and two males when she sells the Degus.

The shampoo moved from dogs to cats to horses and to cows.  One important step along the way for me was for humans.  Our shampoo had moisturizers (to counteract the drying out of the cleaning agent) in it that resulted in soft skin and hair.  In the winter my skin got terribly dry and itchy so having a shower I applied it to my skin and later to my hair.  Very delighted with the result and found some of our retailers had similar experiences.   In the little town of Perth tried to sell a manager on our shampoo for horses and she challenged me that she only carried horse shampoos that were good for humans.  Phoned her a week or so later and she said she was very pleased but also delivered some bad news that her store was closing.  I told her the two pet retailers in town, but really gave up.  Not too much later I learned that the two local pet retailers had picked up their shampoo sales.  Still my personal favorite shampoo.

Although we seemed to be growing there appeared to be a limit.  Our competition had much more in marketing resources and trade knowledge and later learned they could handle government regulations more effectively.

Part 2 where the adventures expand:

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