How to get your product on retailers' shelves

February 5, 2009: 7:04 PM ET

A good distributor can make or break your product line. Here's how to find the right one.

Deziree Williams, Sugar Free Baby, Los Angeles
I have a children's eco-friendly clothing line. We are taking it slow because we are branding our line and are in some ways picky about who we sell to. I have recently been approached by a distributor, but I'm not sure if this is the best way to launch into the market. Any advice?

By Emily Maltby, writer

By the look of your Web site,, it seems you are off to a great start. You've evidently taken the right steps to approach the smaller retailers already, as your line is already in a number of stores.

You are wise to be conservative about which storefronts represent your line. But as you expand, part of your decision about working with a distributor will depend on whether you want to stick to the small stores or get to the national chains. You can continue to go it alone if you stick to the smaller outlets, but a distributor is essential if you want to reach out to the big guys.

"Large retailers want to see someone in the buyer's office that they already has a relationship with - someone who knows the system," says Gordon Cundell, a former assistant buyer with Sears Canada and current president of the Canadian Sporting Goods Association, an information service for sports equipment and apparel buyers and sellers.

Working with a distributor could be a smart move even if you want to indie shops. "Suppliers often have the passion needed for a successful product, but no business sense to get the product in to the right places," Cundell says. "Chances are the average clothing designer doesn't even know all the distribution channels that are available."

And of course, even if you have the knowledge to do the job, you may be stretching yourself too thin by taking on the daily activities of a distributor.

"One benefit of using a distributor is that ideally you have one place to ship your goods to. They break it out and do all the individual shipping and selling for you," says Rob Reger, president of Cosmic Debris and creator of the gothic Emily the Strange product line, which is sold internationally, in 200 independent boutique stores, and in large chains such as Hot Topic and Borders. "This leaves you with designing and manufacturing, keeping the quality control in your hands."

If you decide to work with a distributor, picking the right one is critical. What should you be looking for?

Both Reger and Cundell say your distributor's vision is crucial to a successful relationship. You need a partner who fully understands what type of customer you're targeting, and who has ties to retailers that serve your market.

"Taking it slow and building your brand with a specific core customer in mind is wise," Reger advises.

"Find out what they already distribute," Cundell says. The other lines they represent should be similar but not exactly the same as yours.

You'll want to find children's clothing distributors who don't currently have green attire in their lineup - if the distributor already has eco-friendly offerings, "you risk the lines competing with each other," Cundell says.

Give us your advice: Check out recent "Ask & Answer" questions.

Related links:

How fashion designers break in

Get your clothing line into gift shops

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