In this series, we interview experienced sales reps who know what it takes to get products on shelves. For this article, we sat down with Jason Carik, a member of the Berg Marketing Group. Jason is a sales rep with 25 years of experience and has worked with brands including Target, Walmart, CVS, and Walgreens.* If you’d like to schedule a Quick Consultation with Jason, click here.
R: What do you enjoy the most about being a sales rep?
J: I get to deal with entrepreneurs and manufacturers that actually build a solution to a consumer problem. It’s really satisfying when you get to see a product you’ve put on shelves all over the country.
R: What type of products do you typically rep?
J: Our agency focuses on health and beauty products. So it’s the approximately seven aisles that go from cough and cold products, all the way to crutches, canes, and pharmacy items in just about every store.
R: And within that, do you have an even more specific niche or do you cover everything in that category?
J: We cover everything in that category. Some of the main products in those aisles include color cosmetics, vitamins, first aid, hair, and skincare.
R: Gotcha. So how do you get introduced to new products?
J: That’s a great question. Most of the manufacturers and referrals that we eventually represent in the marketplace come from people we already represent, usually manufacturers. And it certainly comes through our engagement with trade organizations, whether it’s NACDS, ECRM, or certainly, Abound.
R: So you have your sources that you know, and these are the sources where high-quality products come from.
J: Yes, and fortunately or unfortunately, it doesn’t mean they’re going to be successful, but yes, there’s no lack of opportunities for new products that are coming out.
R: Do you feel like you have a sixth sense of what’s going to be successful at this point, or are you still surprised?
J: There aren’t many surprises. There is a systematic way that over 25 years I’ve seen, so when I look at products, I have a pretty decent understanding of if they’re going to be successful. So I would say surprises are pretty rare.
R: I’m so curious about the things you’re looking for. What screams successful product? What products do you get really excited about?
J: With our experience in health and beauty, we look for something unique and different than what’s on the shelves today. So that could be in formulation, packaging, or a great storyline.
Maybe the story is: we grew up as bee farmers, and now we have these products. Now we make lip balm or skincare or haircare, and we have a specific type of bee, and it cleanses better or performs better than anything else on the market.
And obviously, the current buzz is CBD oil. There are all sorts of differentiators happening with CBD, including where it’s originally sourced, all the way through the processing of the end product that have interesting stories behind them.
R: That’s interesting that you mentioned the new trend or buzz. So when you see all these CBD brands emerging, who do you think will succeed long term?
J: When I’m being inundated with a certain category of products, I gravitate towards the brand with the best story. Then best entrepreneur, from their position in the marketplace with their products. And then their overall long-term journey, and in this world, long-term means two to three years. I want to know what that two to three year journey looks like, and if that brand owner actually has that path already plotted. If they do, I’m further attracted to the business.
R: Why do you think having a good story is so important? I would assume that the product just speaks for itself.
J: Generally products do speak for themselves, but when a consumer goes up to a shelf, they have approximately three to five seconds where they’re making that decision. So storytelling from the brand organically is really important, because much of the marketing now is social media driven. And customers seem to align with brands that have a story.
R: And just because we have so many beauty brands on Abound, I was wondering if you had any special tips, knowledge, or research that beauty brands in particular should know.
J: When we talk about brands and beauty, I have found that niche products are an easier way to the goal line for distribution versus presenting a brand that has multiple category segments located within them. That makes it harder for the buyers.
Each retailer has certain buyers that are responsible for certain categories. And believe it or not, within for instance skincare, you have many subcategories where there might be several buyers.
So successful entrepreneurs have found either an ingredient story that’s particular to a certain solution, or they focus specifically with a patent or something unique in a certain segment of a category. So if it’s skincare, maybe it’s facial skincare for wrinkles versus just skincare in general.
I have found success comes with entrepreneurs who focus on a specific solution, and they have three to six skews to go along with that solution.
R: And just to ask the opposite question, is there any horrible red flag when you’re seeing a new product or brand that you’re just like, ‘Oh, nope, I’m not interested just because of this one thing.’
J: Absolutely. That’s probably more common than being excited about a brand, just because of the engagement of the entrepreneur, and where they are in their life cycle.
So you know, typically, one of my biggest red flags is: are they aware of some of the business rules in dealing with large brick and mortar stores?
So when I say rules, that means, for instance, product liability insurance. Do they have at minimum a $5 million umbrella to cover product liability insurance for the possibility that somebody gets injured using their product?
It’s a big red flag if an entrepreneur has no general knowledge of how to do business. What I take away from that is this conversation could be a 2-15 month engagement just training them on some rules of the road on how to do business.
R: Since most people starting products don’t get an MBA, what do you think the best way for entrepreneurs to get educated is? How can they make sure that when they come to you, they’re ready?
J: Certainly getting to know the industry that they’re going to compete in is first and foremost. How do they do that? Well, they can participate in trade shows and gain an understanding of the industry. Those are fewer and fewer nowadays, but there are still some very good consumer product trade shows for any entrepreneur who has a product line if they have the financials to afford it.
But the number one way to learn about an industry is to work with sales agents that are in the industry and executing business day in and day out.
So, you know, some of this conversation is stemming around how I think I’ve been successful with the quick insights consultation calls with these entrepreneurs. They’ve told me it’s priceless information that I’ve shared with them.
And I’ll go even further and send them some emails with documentation that major retailers will ask for that will further help their learning on the subject.
R: And when you’re talking to buyers, do you feel like you enjoy the act of selling? Is it fun for you to convince the buyer?
J: Yeah, definitely. When you’re dealing with a professional brick and mortar buyer, whether it’s 5 stores or 7,000 or 10,000, if you’re dealing with somebody like a CVS or Walgreens, it’s always ensuring as a sales rep that you’re taking the manufacturers vision, turning it into an opportunity for the brick and mortar store, and being able to tell that story. You’ve got to be able to tell their story in an easy fashion and get to the punch line within 30 to 45 minutes.
R: I also saw that you used to work for Sara Lee, so I was curious if you had a favorite treat from Sara Lee.
J: Well, I worked for the Sara Lee meats products division, which is the Sara Lee deli meat brand franchise. That was my entry into the business, then I got into the health and beauty business about 18 years ago.
R: What inspired you to make that switch?
J: The opportunity to get into the beauty space, which really changed 10 plus years ago. Beauty hadn’t been a focus of attention for food, drug, and mass retailers. Meaning only the incumbents were there, the traditional evergreen brands of beauty, the L’Oreal, Maybelline, Jergens. The household names we all know.
But about 10 years ago the retailers really focused and said, ‘Our customer is female, we need to focus on female-friendly categories that bring her into the store, and entice her to feel better, look better, live better.’
That’s been the need for entrepreneurial brands and beauty specifically. And now that’s why you see these retailers like Sephora, these real women specific retailers, that are doing well in the marketplace today.
R: So you mean like 10 years ago, CVS and other stores realized they wanted women to come into the store, so they knew they had to get better makeup?
J: Correct. The reason your corner drugstore has always existed was to fill prescriptions.
But what they’ve learned to think about is: if foot traffic is coming in for those prescriptions, how do they maximize their front end business? And within the last 10 years, the retailers have made strides in wanting to beautify their store look.
Lowering the height of the shelves to make a shopping experience more friendly, and then if they can make her feel good about herself with makeup and skincare and elevate that experience, their entire basket will increase. It will bring more shoppers in, who will buy more goods, which obviously is going to help their bottom line.
And there’s been a major focus from CVS, Walgreens, Target, and Walmart. Walmart’s probably had the largest transformation of not just inexpensive or value products, but adding prestige and higher price points to their selections. Walmart has done I think the best job of anyone in doing that.
R: That makes sense. I’ve never thought about it that way. They’re just betting the numbers on everything. Odds are that women are the ones doing the shopping for the home. So if someone has to pick up a prescription, it’s going to be a woman, so they go ahead and cater to that experience.
J: Absolutely. And you know another add on to that is that 90 cents of every dollar is spent on brick and mortar, 10 cents is spent on e-com.
Even though a lot of folks want to talk about dot com businesses growing 200% quarter over quarter, that’s because there are only 10 cents of every dollar being spent there, so it’s easier to grow quickly.
And while e-commerce is trying to catch up, they’ll never achieve it, because a digital experience, even with videos, will never compete with the complete sensory experience you get with the visuals and emotions of being there in person.
So the brick and mortar retailers are working very hard to increase their visibility in store and make things a better experience for their consumer, which is what they have to do to compete with e-commerce.
R: So overall, what advice do you have for someone trying to get a product into the world?
J: The overall thought process of how someone that created a product can get it out to the masses starts with connections. Abound is a platform that has been built for people selling something to connect with independent agents who actually have these connections.
I think sometimes these entrepreneurs don’t know what they don’t know, so the specific ability to let them connect with a sales agent and have conversations is from a money perspective irreplaceable.
Because one mistake could cost them tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars. Versus a potential of spending $150, and actually get a million dollars of results out of it, to me, is priceless.
R: Do you agree with the belief that you shouldn’t present at trade shows or to sales reps or buyers until you’re ready? Do you believe you only have one shot with each person?
J: Absolutely. In today’s environment, it is very important that the entrepreneur is prepared to offer a presentation that actually gets to the point of asking for the order and has a really good reason for asking for the order. Meaning they’ve done their due diligence in the marketplace, they understand where competition is, and they have a solution that the buyer really can’t say no to.
This means they’ve figured out their cost of goods and understand the distribution model. They understand the five or six major points of doing business with the retailer. They have product liability insurance, they know how much it costs to engage the retailer. If they get an order they can actually fill it.
I need to know you know how to invoice the retailer because at the end of the day we all want to be paid on time. So you need to know all the rules of the road before even talking to a retailer.
Because you put yourself more at risk with talking to them and then looking like you have no idea what you’re doing. It’s better to be prepared before trying to make your product offerings.
R: Well thank you so much for answering my questions. This has been very interesting.
J: No problem, and good luck out there to everyone trying to get a product shelved.
*transcript has been edited for clarity. This article is not intended as legal advice.