The biggest sale I ever made happened in 1998 at SAMS Club, and it was huge.
Publishing colleagues had told me that an individual publisher representing just a few titles would never be able to make an appointment to pitch the SAMS buyer. The only way to sell to SAMS, they said, was to go through a distributor or wholesaler. I took this as my challenge.
Naturally, when I called the SAMS buyer I could not get through, but I did leave a stream of upbeat and positive messages about my books. Women’s health was very hot at the time, and the titles I was pitching were from the Physicians Desk Reference (PDR) product line, including The PDR Family Guide to Women’s Health and The PDR Family Guide to Health and Nutrition (both listed for $24.95) as well as PDR itself (then priced at $64.95).
After consulting with management about inventory levels, we decided to offer SAMS a shrink-wrapped package of the two paperback Family Guide books at “two for the price of one.” The shrink-wrapped package featured a big, Day-Glo sticker with the special offer on it, and the books would be shipped freight-free if purchased nonreturnable.
Buying nonreturnable was also something that colleagues told me SAMS never did.
A Dozen Calls Does It
I started with voicemails, and I left a bunch. I pitched the currency of the information in these books, the relevance of the content to the SAMS Club audience (I had been able to gather some data on the typical SAMS Club shopper), and the fact that I had a two-for-one special offer to make.
After leaving 12 messages over a period of a week, I suddenly got a call one morning from the buyer herself, who abruptly said: “I can give you 20 minutes next Tuesday at 9:00 a.m. Do you want the appointment?” Flabbergasted, I stuttered, “Yes, I’ll see you then!”
I jumped on the phone to make reservations for the trip. To get to SAMS headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, you first have to fly to Dallas and then take a prop-engine plane to Fayetteville. From there, you rent a car and drive for an hour. You stay overnight in one of a dozen chain motels in Bentonville along with the hundreds of other people who have appointments to sell to SAMS and Wal-Mart.
I made the connections through to Fayetteville just fine, but my luggage did not. It was trapped back in Dallas and wouldn’t come out until the next day. Fortunately, I had hand-carried my book samples with me. After tossing and turning for most of the night, I used my “airline courtesy bag” when Tuesday morning dawned to look as presentable as I could.
Inside the SAMS System
I drove the five miles to the SAMS Club offices, which are conveniently located in a converted Garden Center store, and finally found a place to park next to several pickups with both rifle racks and rifles proudly displayed inside. Upon arrival, I had to register my samples with the guard, declare their value, and affix stickers to each. Only samples with fully registered stickers could be given to buyers.
Promptly at 8:45 a.m., I and 19 other vendors were shown through a door into a converted gymnasium with chest-high plywood partitions creating cubicles, each of which had a folding table and two folding chairs in it. The 20 of us went to our assigned cubicles and waited. We could easily see and talk over the walls as well as clearly overhear each other’s conversations. It was a zoo!
Promptly at 9:00 a.m., the doors opened again, and 20 SAMS Club buyers marched into the room. My buyer came to my cubicle, shook my hand, introduced herself, and said: “I have 20 minutes, let’s GO!”
I had my sales literature organized on the table. With no time for small talk or background information, I dove directly into my presentation. I spent five minutes describing the first book and three minutes describing the second. I focused on why SAMS Club shoppers would be interested in these books and want to buy them. I talked about the national reputation of PDR and how this logo would help make the sale in the stores. Then I spent a couple of minutes reviewing the two-for-the-price-of-one special offer and showed the buyer what the sticker and the shrink-wrapped package would look like. I ended with the fact that the books would be shipped freight free if the sale was nonreturnable.
The Order and After
The buyer then asked me, “How many copies do you have?” I responded that we had 30,000 copies of each book in inventory and asked her how many copies she would like to take. She floored me with her response: “I’ll take them all!” Then she asked me to write the details of the special offer right on my sales literature, sign it, and date it. “Do you want me to do this now?” I stammered. “Yes, now!” she replied. So I wrote the details of the offer right on the front of my sales literature, signed and dated it, and handed it to her.
Even though I had just made a tremendous sale, I decided to keep on pushing. “We have plenty of copies of the big PDR on hand too,” I told her, and then I outlined our offer on the PTR book (professional, technical, reference), which was a 40 percent discount, nonreturnable, with no free freight. I concluded, “How many copies should we put into each of the 400 SAMS stores to start?” Her response: “What do you recommend?”
I recommended that we start with 75 per store and said we would replenish from either a central distribution facility or directly to each store. “Done,” the buyer said. Again, I wrote the terms of sale on the front of my sales literature, signed my name and the date, and handed over the paperwork.
After precisely 20 minutes, the buyer stood up to leave. We shook hands, and she told me I would receive a purchase order within 10 business days.
I walked out that day having sold 30,000 packages of PDR Family Guides at $24.95 each, nonreturnable with free freight, and 30,000 copies of PDR at $38.97 each, nonreturnable with no free freight. The sale netted $1,917,600 for my company. Needless to say, I flew home a very happy salesperson!
What I Learned from My Biggest Sale
1. Be persistent when making phone calls and leaving messages. If buyers know you’re going to keep calling back until they talk with you, they just may call you back.
2. Be prepared with some statistics. Search the Internet and reference sources and, if possible, go to a nearby outlet to talk with customers and salespeople on the floor. (I joined and visited SAMS Club so I could gain intelligence about buyers as well as how books were sold and displayed.)
3. Be flexible and prepared to react. When the appointment was offered, I had to accept and accommodate the buyer’s schedule.
4. Never, never, never check your samples or sales materials with luggage on a flight! I would have been dead without my samples.
5. Be prepared for curve balls. I had never sold in this type of buying environment before, but it is very typical of large-chain buying. I had to be prepared to react quickly to an unfamiliar situation.
6. Have your act together. Don’t wait to be asked: pull out your sales literature and get ready to make your presentation as soon as the buyer gives you the nod.
7. Be prepared to make a short product presentation (one to three minutes) as well as a longer one, depending on the buyer’s availability.
8. Ask for the order. My most important question was: “How many copies should we put into each store to start?”
Robin Bartlett is the director of sales and business development for the American College of Physicians in Philadelphia and a frequent contributor to the PMA Newsletter and to PMA University. Formerly a member of the board of directors of PMA, he is responsible for planning and organizing PMA-U. To contact him, e-mail email@example.com.