Inventor Insight: Tips for inventors hoping to get products on store shelves

When you walk up and down the aisles of any store these days it seems like your choices are endless for almost any product you need to buy. Need a sponge? Scrubby on one side or plain? Ergonomic shape or rectangle? Blue or green? Package of one, five or 10? For those shoppers who just need a sponge, a simple shopping trip quickly turns into an exercise in decision making; for consumers who love choices, the available options in stores today make them feel like they are getting exactly what they want.

The fact that so many consumers want more choices is good news for any inventor/entrepreneur who wants to get a product onto the store shelf. With one-third of Americans indicating they have had an idea for a product, who wouldn’t dream of seeing their product on the shelf at a big box store such as Walmart, Target or Home Depot? I know I have had that dream with each of my product ideas. To learn more about what it takes to sell a product to a big box store I talked with Randy Hanson, manager of research and development at PPG (formerly Homax) who develops products and sells to major retailers throughout the world.

As we start talking about his experience, which includes more than 20 years of marketing and product development work, he tells me an interesting tidbit he learned at a recent event with 6,000 Home Depot store managers: “Did you know a buyer can receive over 1,000 emails a day?” The overflowing inbox is not only a challenge to independent inventors, but to the companies with existing product lines. Hanson explained, “We do millions of dollars in product with big box stores, but buyers are always changing and just when we think we’ve got it – we have to start over and build a new relationship.”

In order to get the attention of buyers, it requires the inventor/entrepreneur to get creative in their approach. “Buyers truly are looking for the next big thing and there is a lack of it,” Hanson said. “Inventors have an edge because they think big change, companies tend to do more incremental changes that often aren’t important enough.” So, if the idea is new enough, I asked Hanson how to get a buyer to pay attention to it among all the other people vying for shelf space. “Inventors need to remember there is more than one customer. There is the end user and then the customer, if you are selling a product to a store buyer, they are your customer.” He goes on to explain how to talk to the buyers, “Make it easy for them. How is this product the right decision for them? Clearly explain your product and what makes it different than what’s already out there.”

In addition to thinking about the buyer, the inventor/entrepreneur needs to think about the end user. This means they need to consider the marketing strategy early. “Too often ideas are not vetted out on the marketing side and it’s important to approach it from a marketing perspective,” Hanson said. He suggested that inventors really need to think about their packaging and what it says about their product. “What would happen if they put their product out on a curb — because that’s like the shelf space — how is someone going to see it and understand it? The product packaging has to speak for itself, because in the store no one else will.”

Before we finish our conversation, Hanson also said why it is important to not take any setbacks personally: “Meetings get cancelled or rescheduled all the time. We’ve flown across the country only to have a meeting cancelled. That is going to happen and inventors need to be prepared for it.”