Hint: Do more research than you think you need to.
Tips from the inside: "We operate in 22 different market areas, so we have to be aligned with and attuned to regional offerings that may not be coming from large manufacturers," observes Hal Adams, vice president for retail merchandising at Valero Energy, a petroleum supplier that operates about 1,000 service-station convenience stores. "A lot of times, we are dealing with a mom-and-pop operator that is only selling in, say, San Antonio. But smaller suppliers should know that we have to hold them to the same minimum standards as we do the large corporations.
"For example, we have a minimum amount of liability insurance that any product has to carry in case something goes wrong. In order to do business with us, you need to be aware of our minimum requirements and preliminaries, and you need to be able to do those things. All that information is available on our website. When you come face to face with one of our buyers, it's usually a one-chance deal, so it adds some credibility when you've invested some time in researching Valero and learning what role you might play in it.
"However, it's unlikely that a local supplier would make it into our locations first. Usually, a regional manufacturer will have to have done some footwork in smaller stores where it has been able to create some sort of a test level. If you believe in your product, get it into some smaller retailers and get some real-life market data. Sometimes that might even mean giving a retailer your product for free to see if it moves. In turn, you can then ask that retailer to give you the sales data -- and use it as part of your sales pitch."
What not to do: "Don't be overly aggressive with your sales budget. Entrepreneurs are very passionate. That's wonderful, but that passion sometimes leads them to be unrealistic. A potential supplier should be reasonable in its sales projections in terms of what will sell in our stores. Be aware of how many customers an average store sees per day. If you're coming in and saying that you are going to sell 500 units a day and I have an average of 900 customers, that's probably not very realistic."
What Valero Energy is looking for: Convenience-store items, such as beverages and snacks; transportation services; maintenance professionals; consulting; legal services; office supplies