Startup Diaries: 5 Tips for Securing a Major Retail Partnership

Jessica Huie explains how her daughter was the inspiration for her line of multicultural greetings cards and how she negotiated high profile partnerships with retail chains in the UK and USA.

If you’d have told me I’d be running my own greeting card and gift business ten years ago I’d never have believed you. I was working full-time in the media and enjoying a very successful career in public relations and journalism in 2007, working with clients such as Simon Cowell and Peter Jones and writing showbiz stories for the national press; my daughter Monet who was seven at the time was going through a tough period.

Monet was going through this stage as so many girls do where they are not happy with their appearance. She hated her hair and wanted to look like somebody else, so I thought that a greeting card to subtly reinforce her sense of identity and make her feel like the princess that she is, would be an ideal remedy. During my lunch break I went to Oxford Street – Britain's biggest shopping street - to get the card for Monet but could not find any cards which were a true representation of her!

I checked every department store, every card and gift shop and noticed a complete absence of cards featuring black, mixed race and Asian people.

There was a complete absence of anything that was illustrative of the fact that we live in London, one of the most multi-cultural cities in the world. On a social level it seemed wrong and on a commercial level it seemed like a massive oversight particularly when the mixed race ethnic group is the fastest growing group in this country. 

I am impulsive by nature and that was what made me decide that it would be me who would pioneer diversity in the high-street and shaped my life from that moment onwards.

There were cards with black faces on them in independent stores in places like Brixton and Southall, but I felt passionately that in a society such as ours, representative products should be available widely and multicultural cards should receive the same prominence as all other cards. I knew that greeting cards were not going to change the world but I felt it was a subtle way to ensure all races are represented and to cultivate a sense of belonging.

My motivation was, and continues to be driven by love and passion rather than commercial gain, though that is a welcome benefit! Reflecting on the insecurities I had growing up, I felt that future generations would benefit from a strong sense of pride in their identity, whatever that may be. Developing these cards was not just about Monet but for all children who would benefit from being represented in popular culture. I know how important confidence and self-esteem are to children; operating from a position where you feel worthy, accepted and appreciated arms you with the tools to enjoy a successful adult life. 

We started off Color Blind Cards with 12 designs and within seven months had secured a deal with Clinton Cards, at the time the biggest card chain in the United Kingdom.

The cards were trialled in 10 stores and our sales exceeded the initial targets set. Due to the expeditious success the cards were then rolled out in 100 branches which was a massive achievement. The success continued to follow and it was remarkable to see the public response to the cards. It really justified my belief that a massive group in society was being overlooked and they were looking for something which they could identify with. 

As a result of Color Blind Cards and the simultaneous growth of my PR agency JH Public Relations, I began to be recognised for my efforts. I won several business awards including the Daily Mail’s Enterprising Young Brit Award which gave me the platform to share my ideas with the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown who hosted a round table with the purpose of cultivating a more enterprising Great Britain.

Having begun my adult life as a pregnant teenage mum with just four GCSEs, the experience was both surreal, emotional and empowering.

The article in the Daily Mail had a role to play in the immediate expansion of the business. A distributor in the United States saw the article and soon the cards were being sold overseas. The scope of Color Blind cards quickly expanded and we soon established our presence in several countries around the world such as Barbados, Bermuda and particularly in Washington DC where we have been popular.

Fast forward six years and we are on the verge of going into one of the United States largest retail chains. Later this year the cards will be sold through one of Britain’s biggest supermarket chains and on www.staples.com which has over 1,500 stores in the United States. I am excited by this because the market for Color Blind is expanding rapidly and more people will be able to enjoy the cards. It has been an amazing journey so far with the cards providing me with some special moments. I started doing this for Monet and now my baby son Jensen who is 20 months old.

When the cards secured a small presence in Johannesburg, South Africa the huge potential for a tangible social contribution became evident to me.

Emerging from apartheid to put cards featuring multi-racial sectors of society on high street shelves was unreal. If truth be known, the cards are just a platform for a great goal. Running two businesses and raising two children is never without challenge or sleepless nights and I have had almost as many failures as I have successes, but it has been a remarkable journey thus far and I wouldn’t change a thing. Every day is full of new promise. 

My 5 tips for securing major retail partnerships…

1. Think symbiotic relationships

You want something from the retailer (for them to stock/sell your product) but what can you offer them? For me, that means leveraging my background in PR to generate positive publicity around the partnership. Which brand doesn’t love free PR?

2. Be persistent

In cases like this, there is a fine line between stalking a buyer and being persistent.

Don’t be afraid to do all that you can to not take no for an answer.

Once your product sells well they’ll be glad you didn’t give up. 

3. Be innovative

We secured our first deal with Clinton Cards by proposing the idea of having premiership footballers doing signings in store at Clinton Cards around a range of Professional Football Association Cards we had planned to create for the PFA’s Kick Racism out of Football campaign. This range didn’t come to fruition but it was the carrot which got the wider Color blind Cards range in through “the back door” and then we were able to exceed sales targets and rightfully claim a presence on shelves.

4. Make an offer they can’t refuse

Generally there is very little room for negotiation with huge chains in terms of sales terms when you are a new brand without sales history, but don’t be afraid to make your proposition compelling. At the same time, be absolute with your terms and know how far you are willing to compromise before you begin negotiations.

5. Maximise

Once you’ve sealed the deal have a marketing action plan ready to capitalise on your presence in store.

Whether it’s a social media or PR campaign, POD or all of the above don’t rely on just footfall to sell your wares, do everything in your power to ensure the success of your product in store. Shelf space is precious and unless you are lucky enough to have a product which completely sells itself, you’ll have to work to ensure everybody knows it's available at a shop near you.

Our next stop will be ensuring our concerted effort to impact on the US market is successful…. watch this space!

Having enjoyed a fifteen-year career working at the pinnacle of the British media with clients such as Simon Cowell and Dragon’s Den star Peter Jones, Jessica started up JH PR, a full service PR communications agency. Jessica also founded the award-winning multi-racial greeting card and gift company Color Blind Cards in 2007. Within six months they were stocked in 100 branches of Clinton Cards, numerous independents, Moonpig.com and had secured distribution in the US, Barbados, South Africa and Bermuda. Jessica’s impressive list of accolades include the Daily Mail’s Enterprising Young Brit Award, the Evening Standard’s Inspiring Business award and influencer lists such as Glamour Magazine’s Power List, Red Magazine’s 35 under 35 women who will shape our world, the Courvoisier Future 500, Observer Newspaper’s Entrepreneurs to watch and Jessica is also a Fellow of the RSA. 

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