Getting products onto the shelves at Whole Foods stores is the ultimate goal of many natural and artisan food businesses. But getting a foot in the door can be trickier than at other grocery retailers. To successfully pitch your product you need to understand how Whole Foods works, and how to set your brand apart from the competitors.
How does Whole Foods work?
Unlike many large retail chains, Whole Foods operates using a decentralized network of regional buyers. With 11 regions spread across the United States (and one in the United Kingdom), each region is responsible for making their own purchasing decisions. Additionally, product decisions may be made at the store level, with individual buyers choosing new items to bring in (typically local items). If your product has proven to be a successful seller at the local or regional level, it’s possible that Whole Foods may pick it up to be distributed nationally.
How to get your product noticed
With the huge amount of unique brands competing to get their products into Whole Foods, getting noticed can seem like an impossible task. Luckily, there are a few ways to get your items seen by buyers.
Trade shows are the perfect way to grab the attention of not only Whole Foods buyers but many other retailer buyers as well, both big and small. Trade shows allow you to showcase your products and increase brand awareness. It is also an excellent way for buyers to meet the faces behind the brand, giving your company a more personal feel.
Some of the biggest trade shows for natural and artisan foods include Natural Expo East & West (in Anaheim and Baltimore), Fresh Summit, and the Fancy Food Show (held in both the summer and the winter)
RangeMe is an online portal used by Whole Foods buyers to discover new products. Vendors can create accounts that highlight what makes their company unique, and easily list products for buyers to view. This enables buyers to directly contact brands when they find products that catch their eye.
Farmers markets aren’t just a great place to sell for small businesses and get direct customer feedback, they can help generate local buzz around your brand. While they may not be the most effective way to get your products into Whole Foods, buyers sometimes frequent farmers markets on the lookout for great local products.
Category meetings with buyers at Whole Foods are few and far between, with some categories only allowing presentations once a year. To find out when the next meeting is (and make sure you don’t miss it until next year), it’s important to contact your regional buyer. Contact information for your nearest regional office can be found on the Whole Foods website, or stop into your local store and ask around.
While traditionally brokers tended to offer valuable help when presenting to Whole Foods, odds are they will not be able to provide much assistance anymore. Since being purchased by Amazon in 2017, Whole Foods has severely limited the role of brokers at the store-level.
However, brokers can still offer valuable insight into pitching your products to Whole Foods, and can even help (or leader) meetings with buyers.
Make sure your product is unique
Whole Foods is the ultimate retail goal retail for many health conscious and artisan food brands. With lots of competition out there, it’s vital for your product to stand out. If you already have a product in a particular niche, that’s a great start! But if you’re manufacturing a product that already has a lot of competition, such as almond butter or chocolate bars, you’ll need to find a way to ensure that your product doesn’t get lost in the shuffle.
If you manufacture or grow your ingredients locally, that can be an excellent way to stand out and get into regional stores. For example, Los Poblanos, an organic lavender farm in New Mexico, sell their locally grown and crafted products in several local stores in the Rocky Mountain region of Whole Foods. Additionally, many Whole Foods stores reserve space on the shelf specifically for locally owned companies, which can give small brands an advantage over much larger ones.
If your product already seems too similar to those already out there, don’t despair. Before you present at Whole Foods, take a little time to step back and determine what makes your product unique. Do you have a meaningful story behind your company? Incorporate that into your marketing. Is there an ingredient unique to your product that your competitors don’t use? Highlight that in your packaging.
Know the requirements
Whole Foods stores have some of the strictest quality standards out of any natural grocery store. Ensuring that your products are free of chemicals and ingredients on the “unacceptable list” will help make sure that your product is not outright rejected, and will keep you from having to wait for the next buyer meeting before presenting your product again.
For food products, there are currently 79 different ingredients deemed as unacceptable, including:
•Artificial preservatives, flavors, colors, and sweeteners
•Carmine (a natural red food coloring made from dried Coccus cacti bugs)
•Partially hydrogenated oil
•Benzoates (a type of food preservative)
•Vanillin (a synthetic vanilla extract made from wood pulp)
(For a full list of unacceptable ingredients click here)
Additionally, the quality team at Whole Foods is continuously keeping up to date with current studies and findings regarding food safety and can add new unacceptable ingredients to the list at any time. This means that products currently on the shelf that meet previous quality standards may be pulled if they no longer comply.
If you already have a product on the shelf at Whole Foods, it’s essential to keep up with the latest news about clean and safe ingredients. This can not only help you get ahead of any potential issues and required recipe changes, it means you won’t have to go through the lengthy pitching process to buyers again (and risk not getting your product back into stores).
Whole Foods will also not sell any products that are not in compliance with the FDA and do not have the correct label protocol. Make sure that your ingredient is fully ready to be placed on store shelves.
Do your homework
Getting your product into Whole Foods is not just about making sure your product is unique and meets the quality standards, it’s about getting an edge over the competition. In that case, preparation is critical. Studying your local Whole Foods will help you find out more about the products you would be directly competing with and will help prepare you for meeting with buyers. Being able to help them visualize where your product would fit on the shelf helps them to imagine it.
Being familiar with the store layout can also help you to find opportunities for off-shelf locations. Category managers usually have a considerable influence over what goes at the register, or at places such on top of the deli counter, so if you have a product that would make a good impulse buy tell them. Do you sell energy drink shots? Having those near prepared foods would be the perfect spot to catch the business lunch crowd, and can bring in more profit not just for you, but for the store as well.
Getting your product into Whole Foods is a great achievement, but it’s not for every brand. Entering into a such a large marketplace requires huge amounts of inventory, which is not possible for all businesses. If Whole Foods seems a bit out of your reach at the moment, continue to use other avenues to increase your profits and the awareness of your brand!