I have never found sales to be much art at all.  It’s all science and execution, not some black magic.

Selling to retail category buyers comes down to a numbers game, where the more you do it, the more you can learn and refine, and eventually, you will succeed.  You prepare, rehearse, execute, analyze, refine; then again, prepare, rehearse, execute, analyze, refine; and, keep doing it till you succeed. I think the biggest challenges to sales are:

  1. Getting the prospect to hear and understand what you are selling so they can give you an informed decision.  Category buyers, in particular, are so busy and bombarded with new products that its hard to break through this clutter so you get enough of their attention to give you a good answer.
  2. Accepting their rejection and knowing why they rejected you.  This is critical, because without feedback, it’s very hard to  know why you are being rejected.  Any buyer that gives me an informed rejection is an answer I am thrilled to accept, because then I can go back and act on that information to either come back to them in the future or sell to another buyer.
  3. Giving up to soon.  Keep at it, is all I can say.

With that said, how does one get the attention of a category buyer?

Before I go into specific strategies and tactics, there is one item  that you should burn into your brain, and if there is only one takeaway from this article, this is it:  your job is to make the category buyer’s job easier.

That’s it.  Think about your sales process and even after you get on shelf, your account management process in light of this statement and you will have a happier buyer.  These are exceptionally busy people, almost frenetic and under lots of pressure.  Keep that always in mind.

Cold Calls

This is the one thing I do not do a lot because I am usually working through brokers, but it does work when you say the right things.  You call the retailer HQ (or the regional office where the category buyer is based) and ask to speak to the buyer for your category.  Ask for their name and extension or direct line.  Ask the receptionist how this buyer likes to be contacted – is it a phone call, email, letter?  They will tell you if they can provide that info.

What do you say in a VM or email?  The less, the better.  Honestly, keep it really short.  Save the bulk of what you want to say in a presentation that you attach if you have the buyer’s email address.

Tell the buyer who you are, your product, where you are selling (other retail), your sales results on a weekly basis, and why your product will help them increase sales in their category.  Buyers want to know how your product will drive more people into their category.

Maybe it’s not your product, but you have effective marketing. If it drives category growth, then a buyer is interested.  That’s probably the second most important takeaway from this article.

What if the buyer does not call you back?  Well, they won’t.  I can almost guarantee it.  So, you knuckle down and leave them messages, email and snail mail with results about your product that will give them a CTA (call to action) to eventually respond.

I generally work on a call once a week, along with email once a week, then after a month, settle into a call/email/snail mail (yes, all three at once) about once every 2-3 weeks with good actionable data.  That data can include any or a combination of:

  1. New retail accounts or new locations you have entered;
  2. Sell through data on retail or other direct marketing channels;
  3. Promotions that you did and results;
  4. Industry/category news that is noteworthy for its growth potential and how you fit;
  5. IRI/Nielsen/Spinsscan data and compare where you fall in that list and why that is a good ranking (you can always spin data to your advantage);
  6. Your regional or national marketing activities, their results and how they are increasing awareness for your product

You want to give the buyer good information that independently proves your success. You are not standing on the soapbox extolling how great your product is.  You are letting other outside events and information tell that story for you, like new retailers you’ve added, solid weekly sell-through data, etc.

Most buyers could care less about your product’s features and benefits; they just want to know if it sells.  It it does, they could almost care less what they put on shelf.  OK…maybe that is a bit extreme, because most do care, but hopefully you get the picture that it’s your product’s ability to sell that counts.

When to contact the buyer:  never on Monday’s, wait at least 1 day from their return from a work trip, and 3 days from a vacation. Try at 8 am in the morning and 4:30 pm in the afternoon.  Sometimes, they will actually answer the phone at those times.

Establish Relationship with Reception

Be personable and honest with reception about you being a vendor and you are not sure the process for category review, so are calling to see about how you can reach the buyer to present to them. Many retailers do not have a way to reach the buyers.  You have to adjust as you go.

For example, one major midwest retailer allows no category buyer contact.  You have to send an email first to their main vendor catch-all address.  However, again, if you are nice and respectful, they will pass along your information to the buyer.

If you can reach the assistant buyer or someone in the buyer’s department, that is the next best option.   Ask them more questions about the category review process, the planogram reset dates, and what they look for in new products, such as what kind of marketing they like to see and terms.

Don’t ask them too many questions or take up too much of their time, unless they are willing to talk and offer more.  Just get enough so you are more informed about how to best present your product.


Use brokers, is all I can say.  That is the best way to sell to category buyers. I have a separate article about brokers here.


Find out which ones they attend and see if you can meet them there.  Or, you can try to see if you can run into them for a quick informal meeting.

Other Companies and Relationships

Ask other companies that you might network with at networking events or tradeshows how they reach buyers at specific retailers.  Also, try LinkedIn groups and post questions there.  Who in your contact list might be able to connect you to a retailer?

Unconventional Methods

Go to the buyer’s office unannounced.  This is dangerous because you might be turned away.  But again, ask reception ahead of time if you can do this to score a chance meeting.  Say you are in town and would like to drop by just to see if you can meet.  Plan to hang around all day, if possible, and catch the buyer when they leave, go to lunch, etc.

I have never done this, but was almost going to do it once when the buyer finally responded to me.  What other unconventional ways can you think of in reaching a buyer?


The methods I use the most are cold calls/emails/snail mail to retailers that I go direct, brokers and tradeshows.  It’s important to point out that your results sell you and your product.  If you have effective marketing that is moving sales of your products, that is the best calling card when selling to retailers.  Then, sales come a lot easier.