Stocking the shelves: Why direct-to-consumer brands want to go wholesale

Wholesale contracts with retailers like Target, Whole Foods or Nordstrom can give brands access to whole new audiences. But these partnerships can be tricky to pull off.

Sarah Drumm

Editor
Filling up a basket with digital-first brands at Target. (Photo: Hilma)

TREND DIVE

Direct-to-consumer brands can build fiercely loyal audiences before launching anything for sale. Take beauty brand Glossier for example. Glossier had 15,000 Instagram followers before it launched a single product. Because every interaction a direct-to-consumer brand has with consumers takes place online, they can track where the pain points are and what it is that keeps customers coming back for more.

Even with that arsenal of data, it can take a long time for brands to build nationwide name recognition if they are only selling their products online.

At some point in the journey, it becomes time to go wholesale. It’s a route that’s been explored by mattress-in-a-box brand Casper, which has deals with Target, Walmart and Macy’s, and utilized by the likes of grooming and razor brand Harry’s, which has struck retail partnerships with Target and Boots in the U.K. Other brands that have started selling their products in big retailers include customizable hair care company Function of Beauty, detox drink brand Dirty Lemon and vinegar maker Acid League.

These partnerships aren't all that easy to pull off. The volume of product that Target, for example, needs to stock the shelves in all 1,800-plus of its U.S. stores, is going to be of a magnitude that could make or break a young business with limited cash in the bank. These deals are also hard to secure: buyers, who pick and choose the products they want available at these retailers, are notoriously difficult to get ahold of. If things go wrong, and a product is “delisted” from a store, it can put other stores off taking a punt on the brand in the future.

Here, we take a look at which brands have launched in the past 18 months in some of America’s biggest retailers. We also asked four brands how they did it – and why it was worth all the stress.

Hilma's supplements at a Target store. (Photo: Hilma)
Hilma: Selling the story to Target

When supplement brand Hilma was just a few months fresh from launch, it was already having conversations with Target.

Nina Mullen, the brand’s cofounder, says that while Hilma didn’t have much data it could share to prove that its products would fly off the shelves, one thing that did help was the fact it was trying to be listed in two categories – and two different buyers were involved. “The thing that’s cool about Target is every buyer has a ton of autonomy over their category, and every buyer cares about and is looking for different things,” she says. Getting stocked in the cold, cough and flu aisle wasn’t too hard – the buyer for that section wanted some nicely packaged natural remedies to add to the shelves, and Hilma ticked those boxes. The digestive aisle was trickier: “We had to bring her along for the journey a bit more,” Mullen says. “Since we were so new, they were really just betting on us as a brand. We weren’t able to show them a lot of data.”

Mullen says that in this case, it was important to make sure Target’s buyers understood the whole pitch – how Hilma’s tablets are formulated, and the fact the brand works with a scientific advisory board were key selling points, while the fact Hilma had raised seed funding in the run up to its launch was another vote of confidence. “That makes them feel comfortable that you’re not just some random startup brand on a Shopify site; we are well capitalized, and we’re here to stay.”

Lola: Rethinking the period products aisle at Walmart

In March 2020, feminine care brand Lola began stocking 4,600 Walmart stores. This massive moment for the brand – which cofounder Jordana Kier describes as “the largest retail rollout of any emerging brand in the period category” – was the result of almost two years of negotiations.

For Kier, the partnership was a no-brainer: a huge number of U.S. women shop with Walmart, and when it comes to products like tampons and sanitary pads, which are often purchased as needed, being in-store could remove the friction of waiting for an online order to arrive.

Lola's products went on sale in Walmart in March 2020. (Photo: Lola)

Part of Lola’s foray into Walmart involved getting the big retailer to rethink what the period products aisle should actually look like. When Lola rolled out its products, it was the first time that tampons, sanitary pads and liners had been “co-merchandized” together, rather than being split out and placed alongside the same products from competing brands. Kier says this has been an important factor in Lola’s retail success. “Within five weeks of launch, we achieved number one natural period brand status at Walmart,” she says, adding that this success has, in turn, enabled Walmart to increase its own market share in this space. This partnership has also given Lola a brand new audience: the brand says 27% of new customers are now finding out about the brand by seeing it in a Walmart store.

Three Ships: Getting buyers on board at Whole Foods

In January 2020, Connie Lo, the cofounder of beauty brand Three Ships, was on the lookout for retail buyers at Indie Beauty Expo. The conference is seen as a big opportunity for small brands hoping to secure a wholesale deal. Alongside Three Ships, direct-to-consumer brands like period products brand Dame, wearable breast pump maker Elvie and CBD wellness company Dazey were also exhibiting at 2020’s conference. Because of all that attention, buyers tend to make themselves as difficult to identify as possible.

“Buyers will walk around with their name tags, but flip them around so you don’t know where they’re from,” Lo says. At the end of the day, she spotted one such attendee with an obscured name tag, and decided to strike up a conversation. Mid-way through explaining what her brand was about, the woman flipped over her name badge – she was the Northern California regional buyer for Whole Foods. Three Ships had been on her hit-list of brands that she wanted to meet at the event.

Three Ships on the shelves at Whole Foods. (Photo: Three Ships)

That meeting led to a months-long pitching process where Lo had to provide as many details as possible about her brand and products, from the ingredients used and the manufacturers they are sourced from, to ranking her products from the best to worst-selling. In June 2020, Lo found out that Three Ships would be launching in 45 Whole Foods stores across Northern California.

“Whole Foods is a very specific buyer, because they don’t buy all at once,” Lo says, adding that getting in with one regional buyer at Whole Foods has the ability to kick off a chain reaction – if the sales data is good, other buyers are likely to get interested.

Sienna Naturals: Curating with Nordstrom

Last year, Hannah Diop was tipped off by a friend that a buyer at Nordstrom was after an introduction to her brand, Sienna Naturals, which makes products for textured hair.

The retailer was looking for hair care brands that prioritized clean ingredients and sustainability to bring on as part of its “Inclusive Beauty” range. And while Sienna Naturals was already on sale at Target stores, Diop says she saw the prospective deal as an opportunity for Sienna Naturals to tap into Nordstrom’s reputation a trusted retailer that’s known to have an eye for great-quality products.

“They have this trust with their customer that is unmatched in a luxury retailer, and it has that approachable element that some of the other luxury and prestige retailers don’t have,” Diop explains, adding that Nordstrom has high standards when it comes to the brands it labels “clean” or “sustainable.” “It’s such an important cornerstone to our brand position,” she says. “Nordstrom really lends that credibility.”

Conversations with the retailer began in October 2020, and by February 2021 the products were launched online and in 27 Nordstrom stores.

Sienna Naturals' products, as seen in Nordstrom. (Photo: Sienna Naturals)

Diop says that retailers which have a strong and clear point of view make great partners for brands that share similar values. “The fact we’re part of that assortment that is very curated and very selective is very beneficial for the brand,” she says.

What is Thingtesting?

Our mission is to build a place of discovery, information, and community for curious consumers. Thingtesting is not sponsored or paid by the brands we feature. Read more about Thingtesting.

Create a free account to access exclusive features on Thingtesting and receive our weekly newsletter.

Feedback? Yes, please.