The battle for shelf space: Lessons from 3 successful brands

As an emerging food or consumer packaged goods (CPG) brand, you might feel like getting that first order from a big retailer like Whole Foods or Walmart means you’ve made it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a huge accomplishment—and one worth celebrating—but it’s just the beginning.  

While having the right messaging and packaging design is critical, one often overlooked brand strategy that can make all the difference is where your customers find your product in a store. Many will say that you have no control over that and it’s up to the buyer. I’d like to share a few success stories around negotiating different (better) shelf positioning for your brand.

Chobani defines its competitors

Now, everybody talks about Chobani when they talk about emerging food brand success. Though I’m a fan, it can get a little tiresome always hearing about the outlier. They’re the food version of a tech unicorn. The kind of rags-to-riches story that doesn’t happen very often.

But there’s an important, practical lesson to learn from their success. In the early days, founder Hamdi Ulukaya made a bold and unusual, yet savvy, decision in how he approached his buyer meetings. Rather than accept any order or shelf placement, he insisted that his Greek yogurt (considered an ethnic item at the time) be placed in the main dairy aisle next to Dannon and Yoplait, not with the specialty products. If the buyer refused, he walked away.

Justin’s Nut Butters rethinks its audience

For Justin Gold of Justin’s Nut Butters, it was an open mind and willingness to challenge his assumptions that led to his $285 million sale to Hormel. As an avid mountain biker and vegetarian, Justin wanted a healthy snack option for energy during rides. His squeezable nut butter packs were a genius answer, one that led to a deal with Whole Foods distribution in the Rocky Mountain region.

Originally, Justin wanted his product next to energy bars and other nourishing snacks for the outdoor enthusiast. Unfortunately, sales weren’t where they needed to be. As a last-ditch effort, he asked to move his squeezable pouches to the peanut butter aisle, next to the jars. Sales skyrocketed. The low-cost, low-risk pouches increased demand and sales for full jars as well. Not surprisingly, consumers weren’t open to spending $15 on a jar of nut butter before trying a sample. Once they did, though, they were in.

Michigan Farm to Freezer re-imagines the buying moment

Now let’s look at a smaller company, just starting to expand their reach. Our client Michigan Farm to Freezer secured freezer space for their produce in the “frozen local” section of independent retailers and big-box grocers like Whole Foods and Kroger. Sales were good, but owner Brandon Seng had a hunch that if his product lived next to the fresh produce, the shopping moment when customers were thinking about fruits and veggies, his product would sell even faster.

One problem—there aren’t any freezers in the produce area!

Seng didn’t let that stop him. He met with buyers and pitched them a branded stand-alone freezer, that he would provide if they gave him floor space in produce. He got a couple of buyers to bite and sales immediately jumped upwards of 800% in those stores. 

All of these examples demonstrate, each in a different way, how a product can struggle in one area of the store and be wildly successful in another. In the end, the buyer wants the same thing you do—products that turn quickly. Though it’s not completely in your control, it’s worth fighting for the space you believe is best. Think about where your customer is most likely to be considering a product like yours and don’t be afraid to ask for that shelf space.