As a retailer, you need to keep a steady supply of excellent products that delight your customers, solve their problems, and meet their needs. And this is a lot of work.
From knowing what people want to buy — and what they can buy — to finding the right places to source these products, building inventory, and keeping shelves full of a particular product is an in-depth process.
Because there’s a lot that goes into curating the right products for your retail store that your customers love, it’s best to take it one step at a time. Let’s get started by talking about how generate the right ideas.
Get Inspiration for Your Store Inventory
Knowing where to look for products is one thing — but asking about suppliers now puts the cart in front of the horse. After all, how do you know what to look for in the first place? Where do you find ideas? How do you brainstorm?
Go on an “empathy walk.” One of the best ways to dream up the products your customers really want to buy is to take an empathy walk. In other words, spend some time imagining a day in the life of your customer.
Where do they go? What do they do? What challenges do they encounter or what questions do they ask? Brainstorming these scenarios and then interacting with the world around you like your customer would can give you a lot of insight into what products would do well.
Check out their social media. As part of that empathy walk, you may want to explore the social media channels they use. Pinterest is a goldmine for brands — it’s content curated by your potential customers.
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Research with other online tools. You can generate ideas based off what others already search for and want to find. Use Google’s Keyword Planner tool and start with a single phrase that may relate to your business. Then see other suggested terms that can serve as jumping-off points for new product ideas.
Or check out resources like ProductHunt or Kickstarter to find new products hitting the market — or ones that you can fund to help make a reality, then sell when they’re available. You can also explore review sites like UnCrate or OutBlush to draw inspiration from new products other entrepreneurs are launching (and see what customers think about them).
Dig into a passion. What are your customers passionate about? Could you provide them with unique and novel products based off something they get excited to see? You could also brainstorm ideas based off what you’re passionate about.
And that passion doesn’t have to correlate to a particular product. If you love an industry or a niche, start there when brainstorming potential products. Look up industry influencers with a tool like Topsy, FollowerWonk, or LittleBird to get some inspiration from the top trendsetters in the space.
To learn more ways to find potential products to sell, check out our guide to find a product to sell online.
Taking Advantage of Trends
Sourcing trendy products can give you a short-term boost in sales, but you need to proceed with caution for a few reasons. Trends, by definition, show “a general direction in which something is developing or changing.”
Change is inherent in trends, so expect this if you want to source a fashionable product.
What’s popular today may not be in a year, so keep your eye on how that trend develops over time and order your inventory accordingly.
Use tools like Google Trends to help you make educated guesses about where the market for particular products may go. (This is useful to do with any product you want to source, not just the trendy ones.) You can also use Google Trends to compare two items and see which seems to be more popular with searchers.
Make a Final Decision About What Products to Stock
You brainstormed possibilities, generated ideas, and identified what trends your customers might be interested in. At this point, you may have a long list of potential products you could source and stock in your retail and for your online Shopify store.
But sourcing products isn’t just about finding everything you could sell. It’s about curating the right products to delight your specific customers.
This is especially true if you’re a speciality retailer, or want to build a reputation as a store with the greatest items for a highly niche market. Follain, a specialty beauty shop with locations in Boston, D.C., and Nantucket, takes this approach seriously.
They put their dedication to curating only the best products for their store shelves right on the homepage of their website:
The company only sources products from retailers who pass a strict quality standard. Follain also refuses to stock items with ingredients banned from their shelves.
The end result is a store in which customers know exactly what to expect when they walk in the door: high-quality, health-focused beauty products that are made with safety and sustainability in mind.
Aim to curate your products in the same way, so that your shelves offer consistent levels of quality for customers. The items you sell can reflect your brand, so choose them with care.
To help you accomplish this, ask yourself the following questions before making a final decision on a new product to include in your inventory:
- Does this product meet a need of my ideal customer? Or does it provide a truly novel delight for them?
- Is this product in line with my average price points, or does it fall on one extreme end of the spectrum? If it’s extreme, does it still make sense for my customers — will they want to buy it, and can they?
- Does this item meet my quality standards? Will it meet the expectations for quality I set for my customers through my other products?
- Does this product represent the brand I want to establish in some way? How?
Working through this list can help you understand if a product fits into the retail store you want to build and grow, or if it may not make sense for your specific customers.
What Kind of Supplier Should You Work With?
You now have an idea of what product you want. Now, how do you get it?
The first step is to decide what kind of supplier you want to work with to source products for your retail store. There are a few options here. You could work with:
- Wholesalers or distributors
- Makers (either you or others)
Manufacturers can help you create a product idea that doesn’t yet exist. Wholesalers or distributors can help connect you with existing products that you want to sell. And working with makers is a way to go straight to the source, whether you connect with an individual creating the product or you make the product yourself.
Working with a manufacturer gives you the greatest amount of control possible over the product. You can influence the price, the quality, and the branding of the finished item. But getting started can be a slow, expensive process (thanks to factors like large minimum order requirements).
Plus, you need to generate the product idea on your own. By acting as more of a curator of existing products, you can avoid some of these challenges and pitfalls.
Wholesalers and Distributors
You can use a wholesaler as your supplier if you want to sell products that are already on the market. But that adds a level of complexity, seeing as you now need to carefully manage inventory amongst a larger supply chain.
This route also leaves you with less control over the price. Your margins may not be as great as manufacturing your own products, either.
You can always work with individuals instead — whether they make the product or you do.
You can work with makers to create the products yourselves. Whether it’s someone who hand-knits novelty infinite scarves or creates license plate maps, you can collaborate to nail down a product, set up a store or get placement at authorized retailers, and promote your product.
One advantage is that you have reasonable control over the product and where it’s sold. But you may run into roadblocks when trying to locate a maker who is in the market to collaborate. Additionally, your profit margins will be split between you and your partner and can depend heavily on the time and materials it takes to create the inventory.
For more information on how crafters and makers can sell at shows, markets, and fairs, read our guide to help you nail the in-person selling experience.
You can also consider dropshipping if you want to sell existing products (or have a manufacturer make a specific product for you.) This may make the most sense for an ecommerce store, as this process allows you to sell items you don’t actually own and don’t keep in stock at your own location.
Instead, you forward orders through your business to a manufacturer or an aggregator like AliExpress who then fulfills the order and delivers the product straight to your customer. You can benefit through increased flexibility and little need to keep large amounts of inventory.
Margins here can be slim, however. And this strategy may not work for a retail storefront that requires physical products on shelves in front of customers.
For more dropshipping ideas, read our definitive guide to building a dropshipping business.
There are tradeoffs along with pros and cons with each option, and the right choice may largely depend on what kind of product you want to source. Read up on all the specific pros and cons of each model to get an idea of what works best for your business.
Of course, the right strategy might be to work with a combination of partners. Mia Gonzalez of Chicly Klosets says she works with wholesalers to source products, but also manufactures some custom, made-to-order items.
She says she looks up potential partners online and reaches out through contact information listed on the web. She also relies on fabric stores in her area to find and contact suppliers.
Leslie Pearlson of Oootie does the same. Her retail store sells distinctive bowties for stylish men. “We competitively source our product manufacturers from the top tie manufactures in China, to a boutique producer in New York City, to Etsy makers for our custom orders,” she explains.
Gaining traction and influence can help make the process easier, too. “In the beginning, we had to do a great deal of research and investigate who our competitors were using,” says Pearlson. “But now that we've become a larger presence, manufactures contact us regularly.”
Pearlson advises other retailers to focus on two main things when it comes to quality: the product itself and the relationships you can create with suppliers. “Once you build that relationship, nurture it, because they want you to succeed as well and grow with you,” she shares.
Things to Keep in Mind
As you browse through your options, you want to keep the following factors in mind. Looking into these areas can help you weed out suppliers who aren’t a good fit for your needs, and narrow down to the best choice for you:
- What’s the minimum order you need to make?
- Will you carry inventory? (If yes, there are options offering better margins than dropshipping; if no, dropshipping may be your best bet.)
- Do you want to deal with international companies, or domestic suppliers?
- What are your shipping options? How much will they cost?
- How long will it take to get your product from the time you place a new order until it arrives at your store?
- What’s the customer service like? Where can you go for support when you need it?
Getting quotes from potential partners can help keep your search for a supplier grounded in reality. Make sure to ask about payment terms, too.
Where to Find Partners
To work with a supplier, you need to know how to connect with them to set up a new relationship. Start with the basics and run a simple Google search to generate some options.
If Google proves too overwhelming (and we don’t blame you), start by looking online at some well-known and established directories. We suggest checking out companies like Makers Row, MFG, and Kompass.
Rather seek out and make person-to-person contact? Consider heading to relevant trade shows in order to make these connections.
Trade shows allow you to meet with different kinds of suppliers in person, and have conversations directly with these organizations. You can get questions answered and connect with companies who are also looking to connect with people like you: retailers who can get products in front of customers.
If you want to work with individuals, start in your local community. What events in your area feature these individuals and their products? Are there business groups?
Network and get involved in organizations and communities relevant to your industry and the kinds of products you want to source. Then reach out and make new connections with people who are likely seeking you out from the other side of the table; individuals need retailers to help sell their products in stores.
You can also reach outside your local area by looking up industry events and conferences to attend.
Don’t forget these strategies for finding individuals work for locating and contacting suppliers, too. Reach out to other retailers to ask for suggestions, referrals, and connections.
Outsource Your Sourcing and Collaborate with Others
If you’re still reading, but thinking curating products for your retail store just isn’t your thing — that’s okay. You may excel at other aspects of running your business, and it’s a strength to recognize that you don’t want to spend your time sourcing inventory.
But you still need to stock great items on your shelves to keep customers coming back. So instead of taking on this task yourself, consider outsourcing your product sourcing.
You can partner with influencers in your space or industry. Invite them to curate special or limited edition lines for your store that they can also help promote to generate even more sales.
You benefit in a number of ways: someone else sources the products to delight your customers, and they can have a vested interested in promoting them and boosting sales since they curated the selection.
Fashion blogger Julie Sariñana founded Sincerely Jules in 2009 — and has since partnered with Nordstrom to create her own line of women’s clothing. Nordstrom gets to showcase an entirely new line of products, and Sariñana often promotes pieces on her Instagram to a massive four million followers.
Big box store Target also takes advantage of this strategy for some of its clothing department inventory. The brand partners with high-fashion names and labels to curate unique clothing lines that combine the tastes of the fashion-forward with the budgets of Target’s actual shoppers.
You don’t need to run a corporate retail store in order to use the same tactic. Look in your local area for influencers. Instagram is a great place to source local personalities with a lot of influence — and style.
For more information on partnering with an influencer, read 4 Creative Ways to Promote Your Product Through an Influential Fashion Blogger.
And no, you don’t need to stick to the fashion world to make this work. There are countless individual makers and solo business owners out there with products that might fit perfectly into your store inventory. Search relevant hashtags and identify people you may want to work with.
Let’s say you run a beauty store like Follain in Boston. Maybe you searched hashtags like #boston, #entrepreneur, and #bostonblogger. You might land on the profile of Kristina D. Tsipouras.
Her product might be a fit for your store. She has influence with your local community. It might be worth reaching out to her to collaborate, either on the product she sells or on a curated product line for your store.
This is just one example to get you thinking. See how you could search other terms that apply to your industry, brand, and retail store and work with others to source products if it’s simply not your personal strong suit.
A Final Word
You don’t have to go it alone. Working with others can expand your reach — and your success as a retailer.