How Vitalife Teas landed a deal with H&B (the unorthodox way)

Recently Gavin Edley of Vitalife Teas landed a great deal to have his Matcha Green Tea stocked online by Holland and Barrett, a large, UK-based health foods store. Having taken a slightly unorthodox method to gain the attention of the company, Wet Fish thought it’d make for an interesting interview, and Gavin kindly agreed…


1. Gavin, can you just tell us a bit about your company, how you came up with the idea, and how you took it from idea to reality?

The company was formed in December 2009 – born, primarily, out of my personal interest for green tea and all things healthy! Matcha was a natural step on from standard green tea given its extra health properties, and after I tried some for myself, I imported a little, it was received well, so it basically went on from there.

Now we have a new range of 8 teas launching early November, and a healthy snacks range we are working on – all formulated on the same premise of our core product matcha – to deliver something healthy that people can actually ‘feel’ working. 

I think one thing that has driven the growth and diversification of the company is my lack of fear for trying new things and just to give them a go to see if they work out. It’s great to do sufficient background research on an idea, but if you never just go for it at some point, it will never happen. 
2. Once the business was launched and you started receiving your first sales, how important was it in the medium-long term to get your products taken on by larger retail chains?
Getting into larger retailers was somewhat of a side-goal when the business was first established. 
My background has been primarily involved with online sales and Internet businesses, so naturally I geared the business up to sell online.

With matcha being a much ‘rarer’, premium tea than the typical teas you find in most retailers, it could warrant a special visit online by customers, to make an order for some. Being purely online would therefore not exclude us from our primary target market.

It wasn’t essential to the success of the business to get into major retailers in this respect. But I was aware of the value it would deliver in terms of increased exposure for the brand, and it would also open up doors for other products that we develop – so it was still something I wanted to achieve at some point.

With our new range of teas, the approach is much different. These are designed, packaged, and geared with the retail market in-mind – due to them targeting a more ‘mainstream’ market, and not a very niche sector. So it’s great that our range of matcha has forged the way and laid the foundations for a somewhat easier introduction to retailers with our new teas.
3. Can you share with us the process you went through from initially approaching Holland and Barrett to when they finally confirmed their first order? How long did it take? Were they interested from the start, or did you have a fight on your hands? How many meetings were there? Were there any costs you hadn’t anticipated (i.e. legal fees etc)
The process was relatively extensive, as you can expect from such a large, established retailer.

The entire process took around 3 months before an initial order was placed.

First, we emailed the Chief Executive (in a moment of frustration and by essentially ‘guessing’ his address after researching his name), then this email was forwarded onto the head of purchasing, who subsequently passed this onto the buyer that contacted us.

Then, we had to send samples over. Samples were then presented to the other buyers in a trade meeting. The trade meeting ended and we had several changes to make with regards to margins and packaging. 

We then negotiated a suitable solution for both aspects, and presented again at a further trade meeting. 

In this trade meeting we were accepted, and the process ensued to register us as a supplier (involving plenty of paperwork and a little processing time).

The deal, which I wouldn’t want to divulge in full, involved in itself some costs that we had not anticipated from H+B themselves. But no other costs were incurred that were not anticipated. 

It should be noted, however, that the approach we took to go straight to the Chief Exec, although it worked to speed the contact process up a little, only worked because it was teamed with good timing where they had decided that they wanted to expand their online portfolio of products. We actually got a response some weeks after the deal was closed from their ‘new business’ department who we had contacted prior to this entire process, asking us to send samples etc – so I suspect it would have worked also to go down the traditional route of approach. 
4. What was included in that initial email you sent to the company?
I wouldn’t want to display an actual copy, but it basically consisted of our standard introductory letter to outlets – detailing our prices, MOQs, and a bit of background info on the company. 
5. How has your experience been so far, working with one of the bigger names? Have you had to make any sacrifices? Have your margins been hit much, and has it led to a lot of extra work on your behalf?
Working with H+B to now has been great. They have good communication, and the buyer we are in touch with is very efficient at dealing with our enquiries.
We were a little scared at first that we would not be able to keep on top of customer demand, and potentially run out-of-stock (which would have not looked good on us in the first few weeks of dealing with a big retailer), but we discussed this concern with them and they were very understanding. Thankfully no problems occurred here. 

Margins, are, of course, lower – but that is to be expected (especially considering that they are essentially supporting the product with nationwide advertising and coverage).
6. What do your other, more independent retailers think of your new expansion? Are they pleased there will be more awareness of the product, or worried that the image of the product may shift?
Our other independent retailers and distributors were all fine with this and saw it as good news that we would be getting more recognition for the product in general – matcha, as a product, is very much an unheard of product to most people in the UK, so any additional coverage or support to spread the word is welcomed. 
7. If someone were to come up to you now for advice on how to get their product stocked by a larger retailer, what would your advice be?
Be persistent, and never give up. 
We have been knocked back by countless retailers since we started the business, and it really is disheartening to not have other people express the same passion for your product as you do, but our persistence is really starting to pay off now.

If you feel like giving up, don’t. Think of who to contact next, and keep persevering. 
8. What next? Will you be approaching more large retailers? And if so, how would you change your approach from the first time?
We’re awaiting the arrival of our new tea range, and have a big telemarketing campaign planned for contacting new retailers.
On top of this, we will be approaching our existing trade customers for matcha and attempting to get our new teas stocked in their outlets/online stores too. 

We will be taking the traditional approach of contacting procurement departments, sending samples, and establishing trade meetings.

Although we were successful with going in at the top with H+B, I think it was very much down to luck (that the Chief Exec was kind enough to pass our email onto his team) and good timing (that they were actively looking to expand their online portfolio of products at the time). So we will be taking the traditional approach with all other retailers and just be persistent as always.

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