The pandemic has not been kind to independent sales reps. With in-person meetings cancelled for months on end, reps have had to navigate business in 2020 without (arguably) the most powerful tool in their professional arsenal: the ability to show products directly to potential dealers.
"For reps, not only were all the shows gone this year, but people didn't want them in their stores. It was incredibly hard," said Lou Fliszar, owner of AcmeSales & Business Solutions in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
The challenge was doubled, Fliszar said, for reps of small companies just getting off the ground. Winter's Edge, a new Pennsylvania-based winter accessory company for which Fliszar leads sales and marketing, faced that very problem when the brand launched in a limited market in January.
With little name recognition in a crowded space, the company took on an enormous challenge at the beginning of the year: convincing retailers to order products they had never seen, from a brand they had never heard of, in the middle of an economic crisis.
"We knew we had to get our products into people's hands if we wanted to have a shot," Fliszar said. "So we got together and invented a way to do that."
Inventing a solution
To solve the problem, company leaders designed a sale kit called "See It to Believe It." The concept is straightforward. Dealers interested in Winter's Edge products order a sales kit through their reps. The package includes a sampling of gear across the company's line: pants, gloves, neck warmers, bibs, face masks, base layers, and socks. If the retailer doesn't like it, he or she can ship it back for free. But if a dealer places an order for $2,500 or more, no return is required: everything in the kit ($625 worth of product) is thrown in as an order bonus. Reps are on call throughout the process to answer questions.
"I’ve been doing this for 40 years," said North Carolina-based sales rep Mike Lamb. "It’s one of the most innovative tools I’ve seen in my time as an outdoor rep. We have never been in an environment where you can't get products in front of your customers. We had to be forced into this to see the value of something like [See It to Believe It]."
So far, the company's seven independent reps have shipped about 50 sales kits to retailers.
Lamb pointed to two other aspects of the company's sales strategy that have also been helpful during the pandemic. Winter's Edge promises a 48-hour turnaround time on reorders, so retailers don't have to face the uncertainty of ordering in bulk from a brand they've never sold before. Shop owners can test product a little at a time, reordering as needed without much hassle.
The brand also offers April 1 invoice dating for winter-season orders—but only for products that sell. Anything that's not sold by April 1 is re-dated to April 1 of the next year. In other words, retailers pay only for what they sell, and they get one year of forgiveness to come up with the cash for products left over at the end of the season.
"We’re attempting to take all the inventory risk out of the hand of retailers," Fliszar said.
Lamb said that, armed with these three tools—the sales kit, the easy reordering, and the comfortable dating—"It’s almost a guaranteed sale. The sales kit is usually what piques a buyer's interest. The turnaround terms and the dating are the pieces that bring it home."
But can it scale?
One concern business owners may raise is whether this model can work at scale. As Winter's Edge grows, will it be able to maintain such generous and convenient buying perks? And can the model work with products other than accessories, which obviously ship far more easily than, say, bicycles?
For part of the answer, just look at Amazon, Lamb said: "They's proven that with the right kind of planning, shipping ease doesn't have to decrease just because a company gets big and has lots of orders coming in." As long as the production of product keeps pace with demand, in other words, there's no reason to believe any part of Winter's Edge's operations would bottleneck at scale.
As for the type of goods sold, Lamb and Fliszar both admit that shipping dozens of sales kits and getting orders out the door in 48 hours would be much more difficult with large hardgoods that travel by freight.
"I think our program is an answer for certain types of products," Fliszar said. "For someone like us, it's perfect."
About the brand
Winter's Edge was founded by Jeff Buckman, owner of Buckman's Ski and Snowboard Shop, a 50-year-old retailer with locations across Pennsylvania. The brand underwent three years of development and just completed one year of market testing in about 50 stores nationwide. It launches officially in January. If growth projections hold, the brand is looking to expand to 350 retail locations by next season.