As a specialty food producer, you don't have to be at the mercy of shoppers' whims. You can influence repeat sales in several ways, and careful product planning can grow your brand by an appreciable amount.
There's an old saying that the easiest sale to make is one to an existing customer, but after your product has made it to the shelf, it can seem like closing sales is in the hands of the retailer. Here are five key things you can do to grow your repeat business.
1. Be there when they go back looking for you.
Sure, it’s elementary, but if you're testing new markets, remember to keep your test window open long enough to catch repeat customers, and also any of your customer's referred friends. This includes keeping track of distribution channels. We’ve seen one wildly popular snack food lose sales because one route sales rep didn’t refill the point-of-sale racks in their territory. If I found your pickles* at a farmer's market on Saturday, and I go back every Saturday for three months, and I never see your pickles again, then I'm going to forget about you.
2. Manage your portions.
If a jar of pickles is large enough to last me a whole year, I'm not going to purchase them again this year. There’s not many folks out there who have an annual purchase plan for any food category, even if they are the most delicious pickles on the planet. Bulk packaging is also a sign of getting “more for less,” which means you’ve told the shopper this food item is value-driven, not quality-driven.
If you aren’t sure how to package your product take a look at your competition. Look at the brands that are considered little luxuries and see what they are doing. Do this exercise in food categories other than your own, too, and you'll see many small labels at equal or slightly higher price points packed in smaller portions. These packaging decisions aren’t about cheating the value system, they are about positioning specialty foods as “special.”
3. Give shoppers reasons to use it all up.
Make sure sharing recipes, entertaining ideas, alternate uses, and food pairings are part of your marketing tools. Your website, promotional items, social marketing, and PR pitches should all include suggestions for enjoying your products in many ways. It is not enough to tell shoppers, "Hey, we are here!" Remember to tell them why they want to keep eating more of your pickles.
4. Flavor varieties.
Spicy? Extra spicy? Expanding your line to include additional favors seems an obvious add-on, but remember that just because you can, doesn't mean you should. Every shelf-facing in retail comes with a cost, early flavor expansions need to make a strong case for you with the buyer, so do a little research first. Remember to include the all the costs in your supply chain, production runs, and the marketing expenses to bring a new product to shelf. Start with the flavors that are a natural progression in your line.
Seasonal favors are another idea, but will only work for your brand if the cost and the time to market will still leave enough margin for a reasonable profit. Starbucks does a great business with seasonal flavors (think pumpkin spice latte) but remember that their cost to market is spread across established channels. They control every step from factory to register, and pumpkin spice lattes can drop right into their existing system, and then drop right out without a lot of additional overhead. For Starbucks, that's a no-brainer.
As a side note, you should have your product launch system up and running like clockwork before attempting seasonal flavors. But if you can launch seasonally, take another cue from Starbucks and create scarcity by only selling seasonal flavors in a given window. Then create anticipation by building up to that release.
5. Be memorable.
Everyone wants to believe that their idea is a standout, but there are a lot of products out there, and a lot of noise for shoppers to weed through to find your brand. Top that off with the hard fact that the final decision to purchase is made in microseconds, right at the shelf, and your brand is facing a lot of competition to close a sale. Be distinctive enough to stand out in that noise.
Take a step back and give your product line a critical eye. Is your specialty item really special? Beyond product quality (taste, appearance, freshness) your brand name, package design, and marketing story should be distinctive and appealing to your target customer.
If you are selling your own grandma's recipe, this might be hard to do, so ask a trusted friend or advisor to give you constructive feedback. That critique should include taking a hard look your competition, and running a bit of a feature/benefit comparison on your product message.
Review your packaging, as well. A fairly inexpensive test to do is a computer-generated eye-tracking review of your package face. This is not the same as live product testing with a focus group, but there are a few systems out now that will scan a digital file and run an algorithm designed to mimic reader behavior reporting what elements in a layout would be tracked first. Running a test like 3Ms Visual Attention Scanner (VAS) can give you a starting to point to asses your package design.
We've got a tool to help you organize a brand audit, and you can download the PDF here. Section 4, "Your Materials," helps you get a clear picture of how your brand looks to the shopper. Getting it all in one place for review is a good exercise to help you identify what you are doing well, and where you might be weak.
6. Always be marketing. (This one's a bonus!)
If you want steady sales, you need steady marketing. You should be telling your story every day, and reaching out to grow your target audience with every message. You are already marketing in so many ways, so don't wait until your numbers are down to start talking to your customers. It takes time to build a fan base, and you want that audience to be there when you make an announcement. Think of it this way, if you pick up a microphone to deliver an important message, the chances of being heard are a lot higher if there are people in the stadium. Keeping your story in front of your customers is a sure way to bring them back for another sale.
P.S. You can buy a really cool pickle tee shirt here.