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Retail Roundtable Explores Best Purchasing Practices

“If a new product is not successful, it’s a lose for everybody. It has to be a win,” said Mary Moore, owner of The Cook’s Warehouse, in Atlanta, GA, summing up the consensus of nine retailers participating in Gourmet Insider’s most recent Retail Roundtable. The Roundtable, titled “Step-by-Step: An Insider’s Guide to Better Buying,” was held at the July Atlanta International Gift & Home Furnishings Market and explored the strategies gourmet housewares stores employ to identify, select and purchase the products that help drive their sales.
The nine retail panelists, who discussed everything from identifying product trends to negotiating the best terms with vendors, included Mary Moore, owner of The Cook’s Warehouse, in Atlanta; Beverley Tuller, owner of Mary & Martha’s, in Columbia, SC; Pam Timmons, owner of Beans About Cooking, in Belleair Bluff, FL; Susan Dolinar, owner of Nibblins, in Winchester, VA; Mike Sackett, owner of Kitchen Affairs, in Evansville, IN; Steve Fricke, of Cooks‘Wares, in Cincinnati, OH; Peter Burback, owner of Cook’s Corner, in Manitowoc, WI; Gwen Uhlig, owner of Cucina Fresca, in Elko, NV; and Willard Doxey, house and home buyer for A Southern Season, in Chapel Hill, NC.
Moderated by Gourmet Insider’s Editor, the Roundtable was sponsored by the Atlanta International Gift & Home Furnishings Market/AmericasMart, Beka, Breville, Microplane, Range Kleen, Regal Ware, Woll Cookware and Zak Designs.
New products are the lifeblood of gourmet housewares stores and while it’s critical to keep a steady flow of newness coming in, identifying which products, which categories and which brands will drive business is never an easy process. Participating retailers noted that it takes research to identify the right product and right price; a critical eye to recognize potential voids in one’s own store; a willingness to listen both to vendors and to customers; and more than a little gut instinct.
“The most important tool in our store is a clipboard that sits under the register; the wish list,” said Kitchen Affairs’ Sackett. “We write down anything and everything our customers ask for.”
Participants said they pay close attention to customer requests, with particular emphasis on how often a new product is requested. Cook’s ‘Wares has a list of “missed sales” in the store, said Fricke. “We encourage our staff to put things on that list. If I’ve taken more than one special order for an item in a reasonable time frame, I’ll order extras and put them out on the shelves.”
Nibblins’ Dolinar agreed, adding that, if she’s had more than one request for a product, she’ll also order extras to see how the product fares.
While customers are one source of new product ideas they are not the only one. Some retailers turn to research— the Internet, fashion trends, other gourmet store owners— while others utilize trade shows and follow their instincts to find that next bestseller.
“I research on the Internet, all the top websites, see what the bestsellers are,” said Beans About Cooking’s Timmons. “I’m looking for that little something extra that will make me different from the big guys.”
Several panelists said they rely on peers to see what’s working in fellow retailer’s stores. “I learn from other stores,” said Fricke. “That’s one of the biggest reasons we’re part of the Gourmet Catalog Buying Group. We get to network with each other.”
Uhlig agreed that being part of a buying group helps her to make sound buying decisions while Dolinar said she feels that, as a buying group member, vendors take her more seriously.
For most store owners the decision to add a new product comes with a flip side— removing something else. Cook’s Warehouse’s Moore, while noting that a gourmet store has to have innovation every year, noted that, “Bringing in new products requires a litany of analysis. What are you displacing and why, and how does it make sense to your customer base?”
Kitchen Affair’s Sackett agreed, noting that his number one step for adding new products is figuring out what he is replacing and why.
For A Southern Season’s Doxey, a product’s performance is calculated by how much space it requires and how it turns. “If you’re not re-ordering,” he said, “it’s time to move on.”
Often, a hot new product, on its own, isn’t enough to get shelf placement. According to the Roundtable panelists, there is more to giving a new product or line a chance than just buzz. “The economy has put pressure on vendors to bring things to market that are really innovative. It’s made it easier to see some truly great products,” noted Cucina Fresca’s Uhlig.
Because there are options out there, “vendor support behind a product is crucial,” said Mary & Martha’s Tuller.
From samples to merchandising and marketing programs, gourmet store owners count on vendors to provide support to help get key new launches off to a good start.
“One thing I look for from my vendors— I want to make sure I have plenty of samples on hand,” said Kitchen Affair’s Sackett. “If I don’t have samples that customers can try, I can’t sell that line.”
Beans About Cooking has a “checkout library,” according to Timmons, where customers can try products on for size before making a purchase. “It’s one way to avoid returns,” she explained.
Panelists also stressed the importance of putting product in employees’ hands, a tactic that invariably results in more knowledgeable and more passionate salesmanship.
“Because of the size of our store, there have to be samples for the staff,” said A Southern Season’s Doxey, explaining that in order to sell new product lines, especially high-ticket items like cookware, store employees have to use the product and understand its critical features and benefits proposition.
In addition, products need to be backed up with marketing and merchandising support. “I want to know the manufacturer is going to help me merchandise, demo and sell the product,” said Cook’s Corner’s Burback.
Because the decision to bring in a new product can be complicated, possibly the most important part of the buying process is negotiations with the vendor. According to roundtable panelists, price is not always the most important part of that process. While panelists expressed an interest in product samples as part of the final deal, there are other things on a gourmet store negotiation list as well.
“When negotiating a deal, I don’t think price is as important to me as vendor support,” said Burback. “In the store, a product doesn’t stand out without display and signage,” he added, explaining why he prefers to work with vendors who provide ample merchandising and marketing support.
“It’s not the price we’re negotiating,” Beans About Cooking’s Timmons stressed. “It’s the samples, the shipping, the point of sale displays and fixtures.”
Shipping issues also play an important role in retailers’ decision to stock a new product. “Freight control is huge and it’s becoming a bigger and bigger issue,” said Cooks‘Wares’ Fricke. Kitchen Affairs’ Sackett agreed, adding that free shipping on backorders can also be crucial in the negotiating process.
Vendor support can make or break a deal, according to panelists.
“Negotiations depend on how badly I want an item in my store,” said Nibblins’ Dolinar. “Create an order for me.”
Mary & Martha’s Tuller added, “I had a company pay to displace another company. I brought the new company in and we sold out of the product in eight weeks. It was a total win-win situation.”

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