How to Find a Wholesale Distributor

m110 tips for buying wholesale products for your retail business.

It’s easier to find a wholesale supplier if you know exactly what products you need. If you’re just starting out in ecommerce and aren’t sure what you want to sell yet, check out this guide on selecting products to sell from About.com Guide to Retailing Shari Waters first. If you already know what you want to sell, here are 10 tips for finding a wholesale source.

1. Understand your industry’s distribution channels.

There are a lot of ways a product can go from manufacturer to retailer. Not all wholesalers serve the same market. Understanding your industry’s distribution channels, and knowing where you fit in the supply chain, can help you find the right wholesale supplier for your retail business.

Here’s a quick primer on some different types of wholesalers:

Manufacturer – For some products, you can buy directly from the manufacturer. This is basically what a “boutique” store does — buys from small (sometimes one person) manufacturers.

Importer / Exclusive Distributor – In some industries, a company might have the sole rights to import and distribute a product in a certain country. Some may sell directly to retailers, but more often, they setup or sell to smaller local wholesalers.

Wholesaler / Regional Distributor – There are usually regional wholesalers who take delivery of boxcar sized lots, break them down, and sell truckloads boxes of products to local wholesalers.

Jobbers, “wagon peddlers” – These are the guys who make daily deliveries to local grocers and retail brick-and-mortar stores.

Each product industry has its own unique distribution channels. Some retailers will move enough volume to bypass jobbers, or maybe in a smaller industry, importers sell directly to retailers. (That’s why it’s easier to find a wholesaler when you already know the product you’re looking for.)

When you first start you, you’ll be buying from the smaller wholesalers at higher prices. As your volume increases, you’ll be able to get better pricing and/or move up the supply ladder to a bigger wholesaler.

2. Try the manufacturer first.

You might as well start at the source. If you’re selling branded items, go directly to the manufacturer of the product. They might sell to you, depending on their minimum order requirements.

If you’re too small for them or they only sell through established distribution channels, ask them for a list of distributors you can contact.

By starting at the source (the manufacturer), you can either get the lowest prices or at least get a list of the most reputable distributors to kickoff your search.

3. Have a productive first contact with a wholesale supplier.

Take the list of wholesale distributors you got from the manufacturer, and start contacting each one. What you’re looking for are minimum order requirements and their wholesale unit prices. To get the best responses, be honest about what you’re looking for (don’t try to sound “bigger” than you are), keep your emails short and to the point, and be friendly.

Here how I would phrase a first contact email to potential wholesalers:

Hello, I’m starting a small <insert product line> store. What are your minimum order requirements and wholesale prices? Thanks for your time! -Greg

Keys to that action packed 2-line email:

“small” — This tells them the volume I expect to purchase from them. By pre-qualifying myself, I don’t waste their and my time.

“minimum order requirements and wholesale prices” — This gets to the heart of the matter. It’s really all you care about in a retailer-supplier relationship. Make it clear what you’re asking for from them.

“Thanks” and “Greg” — Be casual and friendly. Those are regular folks on the other side too. Be friendly, and they’ll be friendly and helpful.

4. Try searching for wholesalers on Google.

Conduct Google searches for the words “wholesale” or “distributor” plus some keywords from your products. Try product names, model numbers, and brand names.

For example:

<product, model name, brand> wholesale
<product, model name, brand> distributor

Go through each result and look for the “wholesale account” link or an email address or phone number where you can get more information.

At this point, and depending on your industry, you may have seen several distributors with similar names. It’s helpful to keep a spreadsheet of potential wholesaler suppliers, their prices and minimum requirements, your contact history with them (do you have a wholesale account already or have you not contacted them yet?), etc. After a while, they all start to sound alike.

5. Look for wholesale lots on eBay.

If all else fails, some retailers or small wholesalers will sell lots of your product on eBay.

Since eBay mainly targets retail consumers, the wholesale options you’ll find here are usually only suitable for very low volume retailers. But if you’re just starting out, eBay might be the easy start you need to dip your toes into ecommerce and start shipping product.

6. Check major B2B marketplaces.

Start at Alibaba.com. It’s a huge, global (though mostly Chinese) B2B marketplace of manufacturers, importers, and wholesale distributors. It’s a great source for finding Chinese manufacturing or distribution of commodity products.

Other B2B marketplaces include Global Sources (USA), Buyer Zone (USA), EC21 (Korea), EC Plaza (Korea), and Busy Trade (Hong Kong).

7. Join industry groups, forums, and other professional networks.

Other retailers are not eager to share supplier information with competitors, so it’ll take some networking (and time and learning experiences) to find the best possible wholesale suppliers for your small business. Start building relationships with industry insiders, and eventually you’ll be one of those insiders. Participate in online forums, build your LinkedIn profile and start building connections, subscribe to industry newsletters, and generally build your professional network.

8. Subscribe to all of your industry’s trade publications.

Get every magazine or newsletter that targets retailers in your industry. Every advertiser in the magazine will be a product manufacturer or distributor looking to reach you. You should have a few dozen options from the ads in the back of the magazine. These publications will usually have a Web site too.

9. Attend a trade show.

These events are for retailers just like you. When you can talk face-to-face with manufacturers and wholesale distributors, it avoids all of the noise of inaccurate information that can plague the Web. The largest directory of trade shows is at tsnn.com. You can search for a trade show by industry, date, city / state / country (it’s a global directory), and/or event name. Here are some tips for maximizing your trade show experience.

10. Don’t be afraid to make a mistake.

Your first wholesale supplier may not be your lifelong vendor. Creating your perfect supply chain is an evolution involving a lot of trial and error. But don’t let less-than-ideal conditions stop you from doing business. Remember, all you need from your first supplier is product that you can ship at a profit. It may not be the best wholesale price for you, but don’t sweat that in the beginning. Your first goal is to ship product. Then you can improve your bottom line by trying other wholesale suppliers.