10 Lessons For Starting Out In Wholesale Stationery

I remember the first time I went the the National Stationery Show (NSS) just to walk through it. It was a lot to think about. Being in the shared Stationery Academy booth definitely helped the first year I showed.
My wholesale journey started because I love working with business owners which is something I learned in the healthcare industry, when I was working for a company to develop marketing strategies and community for children's hospitals.
These are the overall things I learned I needed to successfully "go wholesale":

1. You need an excellent signature style.

If you've ever walked the floor at NSS, you're going to see a lot of the same thing. Over, and over, and over again. It pays off to have developed a signature style that sets you apart from all the other booths that are showing product that is the current trend or a copy cat of someone who is successfully selling their product.   If you develop product based on your style, it will never be a trend.

2. You need a complete collection of paper and/or gifts and be able to commit to multiple new product releases a year.

You should have at least 48 pieces in your overall collection with 12-24 pieces per product category. You have to give your buyers something to choose from. They need options! And they are more likely to place a larger order if there are more choices to buy from, as well as take you seriously as a wholesaler. If you decide to use a sales rep or not, you still need to be making new releases throughout the year. There isn't really an industry standard, but for the most part, you release your main collection in May and then release a second and third time in another part of the year. Do what works for you! And then be ready to share those releases in a unique way to your retailers.

3. You need to know the industry standards for packaging and sizes.

Understanding the minimums, quantities, standard size, and packaging is a really big help to your retailers. The easier you can make it on them, the more likely they are going to push your product. SKUs and labeling are a big part of that and it can be confusing (and way too much to cover here), just be smart and think through all the things your retailer may need to best sell your product.

4. You need to know how the sales process works.

Retailers expect a sales pitch when they walk into any NSS booth, but they also value authenticity. Sales reps are another way to get your product in front of retailers across the country, but they usually want a stationer who has been in the wholesale business for a few years before they will take on your line. Make sure you have a marketing plan of how you will find and sell your product throughout the year, not just around release dates.

5. You need to know how to price your product for profit.

If you are starting out as a custom designer or direct to your customer, it's highly likely you aren't pricing your product right for wholesale. Your mark-up has to be right to make a profit. It's a very different pricing scale and can seem weird because you're making less profit per piece but the orders and print quantities are significantly higher. Your selling your product to retailers at an industry standard "keystone" mark up, and then they will also mark it up to their Suggested Retail Price. There are so many more nuances and tips on pricing that we're not covering here. This is probably the biggest issue in going wholesale.

6. You have to be prepared for low or no sales your first year.

Retailers are skeptical of first-year wholesale stationers. Mainly because it's hard and they know it. You might not be around next year and they want people and product they can depend on for product. The key to wholesale is loving wholesale. You have to love how this part of the industry works in order for it to work for you. It can be so rewarding and open so many doors and opportunities if you show up.

7. You need to plan to attend for 3 years in a row when you get started.

Honestly, I didn't think this was true the first time I exhibited but it is. Your first year, sales are great and retailers are skeptical of first time exhibitors. Your second year, you're more confident and retailers start to take notice that you're back. Your third year, if your product has a great signature style and is successful in your stores (meaning you're getting re-orders), is the year you start to make a noticeable difference

8. Your planning and work doesn't stop after the National Stationery Show (NSS) is over.

With all the work leading up to the National Stationery Show and your biggest product launch of the year, it's hard to believe that the hard stuff only begins after the show is over. This is where you print, package and ship your orders as quickly as possible. You'll need an army to help assemble everything. As well as following up with retailers who didn't buy, coming up with a new release, touching base  with retailers who did order to see what's working for them or if they want to re-order…lots of work to do.

9. Print more than you need to get the lower price per piece.

Wholesale only works if you can print high quantities to get a lower price per piece. The most worrisome part of that is if you don't get the orders you need from the National Stationery Show, you still have to print those high quantities to meet the price and profits you planned for and you're stuck with a lot of left over product. Your best option is to do a few things: sell them at retail price on Etsy or your online shop, sign up for local craft shows or have an open house with a store you love, and sign up for larger holiday expos that your Junior League or Chamber may organize, or even think about doing Atlanta or Dallas Market.

10. You need to know how the wholesale industry is changing - and it's happening fast.

This industry has seen tremendous change over the past 10 years. The rise of quality digital printing and the easy print-on-demand online retailers put a lot of traditional stationery businesses in difficult positions. Those who were able to sense that change and make a move were successful in the transition. Being aware of those changes and able to make adjustments in your business is key. There are different ways to sell your product outside of the more traditional outlets. Retailers are buying differently, too. Wholesale is something you get into for the long-haul. It's a commitment and not for the faint of heart. Our best advice is to educate yourself as much as possible before you take the plunge!



We have a 2 part webinar called Pushing the Envelope. Part One is "Wholesale 101" from Rob Fortier. Rob has spoken at NSS on many occasions and is the co-author of Pushing the Envelope. We are thrilled he agreed to join us in a webinar this semester! This is Part 1 of our 2 part wholesale stationery webinars.

This 90 minute webinar will cover:
  • Tips for determining if your product is ready for the market
  • How to price your products for maximum profit
  • Techniques for identifying and determining your audience
  • Best practices for setting up your business foundation
  • Strategies for creating systems to keep your business running smoothly

Part Two is "Building Your Sales Force" with Meryl Hooker. With a nearly 25 years of wholesale, retail, and business operations experience, Meryl brings practical skills, creativity, and tenacity that is refreshing, honest, and inspiring.

In Meryl's content-rich session, you will learn:

  • Proven ways to create multiple streams of income NOW
  • Insider tips for finding the right reps for your line
  • Simple ways to maximize your rep relationships and expectations
  • Build your confidence and reduce anxiety when making sales calls
  • How to create a comprehensive sales plan
We do not go into Wholesale in depth at our live Stationery Academy conference. So, if you are an alumni even thinking about "going wholesale", you may want to register for this. 
It will be great information to have whether wholesale is in your near future or a long term goal.
Rob and Meryl have been very generous and offered a free PDF version of their book, "Pushing The Envelope: The Small Greeting Card Manufacturer's Guide to Working with Sales Reps" to anyone who registers for both sessions OR if you want a traditional printed copy they are offering a 40% discount off the cover price. 



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