Winter 2003
Finding Suppliers

Experienced retailers never stop looking for new suppliers. They know that the next vendor connection they make might mean better profit margins, quicker delivery, or higher quality for the same price. And these days, manufacturers and wholesalers are eager to land new retail accounts.

In most cases, manufacturers offer retailers the lowest cost of goods. But because many of these companies don’t have sales forces to handle retail accounts, small retailers usually order through a wholesaler or distributor (which is basically the same), or a manufacturer’s rep who may represent more than one manufacturer. No matter which route you choose, the ultimate challenge is to find suppliers who can deliver the product you need, when you need it, at the right price. Here are some sources for finding them.

Trade magazines

Retail trade magazines (including this one!) are an excellent source of information on suppliers. These publications provide editorial coverage and suppliers’ ads well in advance of consumer buying seasons. In some cases, the ads indicate if the supplier is a manufacturer or a wholesaler. Many good general-retail trade magazines are available. Some that are worth checking are Gifts & Decorative Accessories (800.309.3332), Giftware News (888.545.3676), and Giftware Business (847.647.7987). They’re packed with supplier ads and lists of various product lines

Dozens of specialized publications are available, too, such as Specialty Coffee Retailer (314.487.6568),Pet Age (312.663.4040), and New Age Retailer (800.463.9243). Some publications are even more specialized than that—such as Juiced! (480.990.1101), a quarterly for smoothie retailers. To find trade magazines that pertain to your specialty retail business, check resources like the Wilson Business Periodicals Index in the library or online (

Trade directories, buyer’s guides

Trade directories, sometimes called buyer’s guides, are also good sources. Some of them are available only in print, but more of them become available online every year. Online directories are sometimes more current than print ones because an online database is much more easily updated. You can search by company name, product name, or keywords that seem logical to you. On the downside, some online directories aren’t free. In fact, some are downright pricey, and the expense may not be worth it to you. Also keep in mind that what’s free on the Net today might not be free tomorrow. So when you find good information online without having to pay for it, nail it while you can.

Of course, you can buy your own copies of directories and buyer’s guides at bookstores, from online booksellers or directly from the publishers. Even though you’ll find some of the larger directories in the library, it may be worth buying a copy of your own or paying for online access if you’re going to use a particular one often.

Thomas Register of Manufacturers
The most comprehensive manufacturers’ directory by far is the Thomas Register (800.699.9822; This is a multi-volume publication that has detailed information on more than 170,000 manufacturers. Companies are listed by name, product brand names and product categories. Most libraries have The Thomas Register, or you can buy it directly from the publisher in print, or on CD or DVD (currently $129 each; free online access).

American Wholesalers & Distributors Directory
To find wholesalers and distributors, check this directory, which is published in print each year by The Gale Group (800.877.4253; It lists more than 27,000 companies by name, product categories, and geography. ($240, or available in most libraries.)

American Manufacturers & Wholesalers Blue Book & CD-ROM
The book, published by Data Direct International (800.977.7959;, includes a companion database on CD with detailed listings of more than 175,000 US manufacturers and wholesalers, including more than 5,000 e-mail and Web addresses. This directory is most likely in your library, or you can purchase it online ($139). Be aware, however, that the database itself isn’t online.

An online, user-generated guide created by Specialty Retail Report. It’s a comprehensive directory of manufacturers, locations and services and franchises and turnkeys. This guide is updated by thousands of manufacturers and wholesalers in the US and Canada.

Other directories
Other wholesale directories and buyer’s guides may also be in the library; some cover manufacturers and wholesalers both. Also look for a state directory of manufacturers, which is available in most libraries. And most local Chambers of Commerce print directories of their members, many of whom are manufacturers.

Trade shows

Trade shows come in two formats—wholesale shows, which are “to the trade only”; and retail shows, which are open to the public. Wholesale shows are a gold mine of product information for retailers. It’s where you learn about products and meet suppliers.

To attend a wholesale show, you need proof that you’re a retailer—primarily your tax ID number. (If you’re just starting and don’t have an ID number yet, go to the retail shows that are open to the public. You won’t be able to buy product at wholesale costs, but you’ll get plenty of ideas from dozens of retailers.) Thousands of trade shows take place each year in the US. The easiest way to find one near you is to look online. You can search keywords like “gift trade show,” and visit sites that list trade show information, such as

Of all the shows taking place every year, only one is just for specialty retailers: the International Council of Shopping Centers’ Short-term Specialty Retail Conference & Expo. This trade show takes place in a different major city during the first quarter of every year. It features dozens of companies offering products that are specifically targeted to the specialty-retail market. This trade show attracts more than 1,000 attendees—wholesalers, mall managers, cart and kiosk manufacturers, and professional-services firms—who interact with and learn from each other in the course of several days. By the way, the show’s registration fee is free for first-time attendees, who benefit greatly from seminars on topics that range from accounting to lease negotiation to visual merchandising. (For information: 646.728.3800;

Merchandise marts

Few places offer retailers more wholesale product selection than merchandise marts, the large (sometimes huge) permanent centers where dozens (sometimes hundreds) of wholesalers display their products for retailers to see, touch and buy. The largest merchandise marts are in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, Miami and Dallas.

The key to getting the most from a merchandise mart is homework. For starters, find out when a mart is open. Not all wholesale showrooms are open every day, and most marts host special events (or “market days”) when many wholesalers offer special discounts. Also, find out if you have to pre-register. Many require advance registration.

Most marts aren’t open to the public, so you’ll need documentation to get in, usually your tax ID number and a canceled business check. To find out where merchandise marts are located, and local or toll-free numbers to learn more (such as their admission requirements and operating hours), check your phone book, look in SRR’s Retail Resource Guide, which lists more than 20 US marts, or search online. Most sites offer wholesale product details online. Searching a mart’s site before you go can help you plan your buying strategies without pressure from a salesperson, or time constraints. Some marts have added online shopping services to their Web sites, as well.

Online resources

Many retailers prefer to use the Internet to find suppliers. The Thomas Register online ( is free, but registration is required. You can search this database by company name, product name or keyword. For example, “jewelry” brought up more than 500 manufacturers under 93 product categories. You can narrow and refine your results by adding words such as “trademark,” “brand name,” a product description, and even city or state. One more feature of the online version: thousands of company catalogs you can download.

A host of wholesale Web sites has cropped up in recent years, and some of them feature products from dozens of manufacturers. Some sites specialize—e.g., focuses on international products. But before you can search a site for products, you most likely will have to register first. A few sites ask for a sales tax ID number; others let you look for products first and then ask for your tax number if you decide to buy something. Purchases are usually completed right on the Web site, but in some instances you may be linked directly to the manufacturer to complete the transaction.

If you do use the Net to find suppliers, keep in mind that while you can come up with a vast amount of information in a short time, sometimes that information is out of date or incomplete. It’s a good idea to print out the info you find online, and keep the printouts. Better yet, follow up the research with a phone call to verify it—especially if you plan to go to a show.

Many good suppliers are out there. It just takes a little research to find them. When you do, ask questions—and make friends with them. They’re a lifeline to your retail success.

Nancy Tanker

Nancy Tanker is the former managing editor of Specialty Retail Report. She has covered the specialty retail industry for nearly 15 years for a variety of publications and can be reached at
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