How We Landed on Target's Shelves

Last Updated Jan 19, 2011 1:19 PM EST

By Mei Xu, CEO, Chesapeake Bay Candle, Rockville, Md.
When I started my candle-making company, Chesapeake Bay Candle, we quickly landed distribution deals with over 3,000 boutiques and department stores. But I wanted to move up to larger chain stores. My next goal was to bring in the big fish in the home décor market: a distribution deal with Target. So I embarked on a quest to land the contract.

The process led to literally dozens of rejections from their top candle buyer. But now Target is responsible for over $8 million of our annual sales. The lesson I learned? Sometimes single-minded vision -- even obsession -- is more important than business protocol or even careful planning.

Brushing off rejection
My husband and I launched our company in 1994. We focused on contemporary and elegant merchandise that would serve as an alternative to the "country" style that was popular at the time. I sold our products to department stores like Bloomingdale's and Nordstrom's right away.

But I knew that getting into big-box stores would increase our visibility and ensure our long-term success. Target stores were the ideal showcase for our brand. They focused on casual, contemporary design. Moreover, they had the capacity to place huge orders.

I tracked down the candle department buyer's phone number and left her a message. She didn't call back. So I left another message the following week -- no reply. I refused to take her silence as a 'no.' So I left messages every week for six straight months. I figured she might not appreciate my tenacity but she was my only way in to the company.

Finally, I had a conversation with her receptionist to ask why the buyer wasn't returning my calls. She told me that I should go over the buyer's head and talk to her boss. So I called her supervisor, who told me that my products sounded great and that she'd have the buyer call me.

The phone rang two minutes later: Jackpot, it was the buyer. I thought I'd finally struck gold. Then she told me what I'd done wasn't the right way to start a business relationship. She refused to meet with me, and my subsequent calls went unanswered.

Landing the fish
Her brush-off just made me more relentless. I kept the buyer's number on speed dial and obsessively called her every week, hoping she might change her mind about me.

Finally, after a year, I heard a different voice on the phone message, and my hopes were lifted. I figured that a new buyer would want to make a mark on the company by impressing her superiors with new vendors. Here, at last, was my in with Target. I left a message describing my company, and sure enough, she called back later that day and arranged to meet with me.

In preparation, I made custom candle samples that I'd designed just for Target, with a color palette aimed to appeal to a younger audience. As soon as I met with the buyer, she started sniffing the candles and asking all sorts of questions about the fragrances and our retail prices. Then she asked, "How soon can you deliver?"

Scaling up
I was completely caught off guard. I mean, senior managers generally will have an internal discussion before giving a firm commitment to a vendor. Not only was she sold, she wanted $3 million worth of orders to fill all 800 Targets in America. I told her that we'd be able to ship in a few months. But I had no real idea about how I'd fill the order.

I immediately went to work finding the resources to make the delivery on time. We started by hiring new staff, then turned our attention to distribution. We knew that we'd need to use new data tracking systems to ensure that the products shipped accurately. We didn't have the capacity to do that in-house. So we outsourced our distribution to a company in California, which enabled us to fill Target's orders and transmit them successfully.

Two weeks after our candles hit the shelves I got a panicked call from the buyer. "I think we were wrong," she said. That was my cue to panic. Did she want to call off the order?

Then she said, "I think we could have sold three times as much." She asked us to ramp up production immediately.

Fortunately, we have a strong partnership with a factory in Asia. I flew to China to get everything ready within six weeks. By April, we were fully stocked, and we sold Target $8 million worth of product that year.

Just the beginning
Producing the volume to meet Target's demands was a challenge. But it immediately paid off. Target has a reputation for attracting vendors that are able to quickly scale production based on demand, which is attractive to other large chains.

Now, we're working with retailers like Bed Bath & Beyond, Kohl's and Pier 1 Imports. We've gone from 20 employees to a staff of over 50, and brought in $90 million in annual revenues for 2009. We're opening a factory in Maryland soon, which will cut down delivery time to help us better service our demanding retailers.

The takeaway: Relentlessness pays off. Big time.

Mei Xu recently launched a second company, Bliss Living Home, which focuses on bedding and décor with an international theme.
-- As told to Kathryn Hawkins