What Not to Do in a Product Line Review

You don’t spend decades helping clients of all backgrounds break into retail without collecting some war stories.

Jenni Becker, the former president and owner of Empire Level, has endured many a product line review (PLR) as a client as well as a consultant. Now, in her role as Sales Factory’s VP of Business Development, she sits down with VP of Marketing Strategy Mike Fowler and veteran Business Development Advisor Steve Betzler to offer a combined 60 years of experience guiding brands through the grueling product line review process.

From cautionary tales to wardrobe malfunctions, Jenni, Steve and Mike take a no-holds-barred trek down memory lane to offer their best advice for avoiding PLR mistakes without learning the hard way.

Don’t forget that merchants are people.

Jenni: Product line reviews are nerve-wracking, high-stakes events that can dramatically impact the future of your business. They are also just people talking to other people.

Never go into a PLR without understanding your merchant or buyer on a personal level. You want to know something about them as humans so you don’t step on any landmines unintentionally, especially when it comes to things like politics, religion and sports teams.

It’s so important to be authentic and friendly, but it’s hard to back peddle if you come on strong and accidentally insult someone.

Steve: Don’t let your product line review be your first engagement with your merchant. Set up an introduction or a store walk before your presentation to build up some rapport and trust. One of the goals of a PLR is to develop your sales relationship into a consultative relationship, so start early. At the bare minimum, try to arrange a phone call so you aren’t coming in cold.

Mike: Merchants are just humans at the end of the day. If you give them something to get excited about in your pitch, they’ll get excited. But you have to read the room. Not every presentation style will succeed with all buyers – just like not everyone has the same sense of humor.

I’ll never forget the time I pitched raffling an ATV as an in-store promotion for a retailer. The team thought it would be fun to surprise the merchant by having me actually drive the ATV into the meeting. Without having time to rehearse, I waited around the corner for my signal and came barreling in on four wheels. I squealed on the brakes and barely avoided running into the merchant, who could see in my eyes from yards away that I didn’t know if I could stop in time.

To make matters worse, the merchant turned out to be a really straight-laced guy who thought the whole promotion was too flashy. He certainly wasn’t the type to laugh off a narrowly-avoided ATV accident. It would have been better to know that going in.

Don’t skimp on preparation.

Mike: Know your numbers, and make sure everyone is on the same page. A successful PLR is bigger than one salesperson. You’ll need to pull in marketing expertise, consumer researchers, product and/or channel managers, and the sales team.

Don’t work in silos, or rely on reps to supply answers to pointed questions about your company or category. Work together so that you have cohesive responses regardless of where the buyer directs their questions.

Jenni: Don’t do your homework on the bus on the way to school. It’s obvious that you should have stellar knowledge of your product, category and key metrics – don’t neglect the actual presentation. Failing to practice and rehearse as a team is one of the worst mistakes you can make. You want to make it look easy.

Steve: Here’s an example: Years ago I was part of a merchant meeting for a business that manufactured carpenter’s levels. Their representative was eager to contribute to the discussion and very excited to show off a new model of level that was supposed to be particularly durable. After gushing to the buyer that it was virtually indestructible, he tried to prove his point by enthusiastically whacking it with a hammer.

It just exploded. Everyone stared.

Spontaneity is fantastic, but don’t put yourself in a position to undermine your own credibility.

Don’t talk at your merchant.

Jenni: A PLR isn’t a lecture. Get your buyer to engage in a conversation with you and make them a part of the pitch. Collaborate rather than sell. Look for ways to involve them in your vision for your product line and they will automatically feel more invested.

When so much is on the line, it can be tempting to stick to the script and get robotic. Don’t stop being who you are. Balance the formality of the situation with authenticity.

Steve: I remember a merchant meeting that took place annually to renegotiate advertising and rebates. On this occasion, they filled the room with merchandising and finance reps – Jenni and I felt very outnumbered and overpowered.

When the merchant asked for a bigger advertising budget, Jenni countered with a flat “no.” The room got tense and quiet.
Jenni always had a ritual of getting her hair done before a PLR and the color was a vivid red. I announced, “Don’t worry she is just a pit bull with a bad haircut.” All the tension was instantly broken and shifted to me, who everyone thought would be summarily executed or fired at minimum.

Jenni: If you are authentically funny, be that person. Because Steve broke the ice that way, they remembered us and it worked to our advantage. The stakes may be high, but remember that you’re really interacting person-to-person.

Don’t fail to address your merchant’s goals.

Jenni: Know how your retailer is incentivized and use that information to direct your approach to your PLR. One-size-fits-all just doesn’t work here – let your merchant know that you’ve studied their long-range goals and show how you are part of that action plan.

Menards, for example, doesn’t really care about your brand’s investment in broad marketing tactics. They simply want to know how you can improve their bottom line directly. In that situation, emphasize how you fit into their pricing strategy.

Mike: It’s also important to know what your merchant is looking for from your partnership and what stage of the decision making process they are in. It’s devastating to pour hundreds of hours of work into a PLR, only to find out that the merchant is only looking for introductions. It would be even worse to under-prepare for a critical meeting.

Know what you’re walking into. Remember that there’s no substitute for direct relationships with your retail partners. Speak with your merchant one-on-one and figure out what they are looking for before you walk in the door. If you know their pain points and future plans, you’ll be in a much better position to solve their problems.

Don’t underpack.

Jenni: It seems obvious, but showing up without the right adapter cord for a projector or working batteries for a remote can be really stressful. Little things like tape, markers, extra copies of presentation materials and samples can make a huge difference in the moment.

I once had someone on my team save the day with a miniature sewing kit. Right before our meeting was supposed to begin, a client’s tight-fitting dress shirt ejected a button, leaving a gap that was hard to look away from. My associate sewed him back into his shirt right there in the lobby. I was so impressed.

The moral of the story is: be a girl scout. Bring anything you think you might need.

Steve: It’s also a good idea to see the room you will be presenting in ahead of time if possible. Know who will be in attendance. Make sure your presentation fits the room and that you have space to orchestrate things and keep the audience’s attention where you want it.

There’s nothing worse than assuming particular equipment will be available to you and finding out you’re wrong.

Mike: Remember that you are a part of your presentation. You don’t want to look unapproachable, but you want to look the part. Dress sharp, and just a bit more formally than you expect your audience to be dressed.

There’s an element of showmanship to a product line review. So much work goes into preparing, but you want the end result to look effortless. Build the right team, get unified in your approach, and it all comes together. Know your product, category and audience inside and out, and then show what you know with confidence – that’s how your merchant will come to see you as a trusted adviser.