4 Tips to Find the Right Suppliers for Your Small Business

Reliable suppliers are crucial to your success. Don’t just go with the cheapest options.
Marcus Guiliano, restaurant consultant and owner of Aroma Thyme Bistro, establishes meaningful relationships with suppliers that he can depend on. (Photo courtesy of: Marcus Guiliano)

So many things can make or break a small business. One of them is its suppliers. The wrong ones can mean headaches, empty shelves and a shrinking bottom line. The right ones help support a bustling operation that can meet the growing and varied demands of its customers.

When choosing a supplier, don’t default to the cheapest option out there. Here’s how to vet the candidates and make the perfect match.

Seek a partner who will problem solve

If you run out of a crucial item at 5 p.m. on a Friday, you need a supplier that can deliver the product ASAP, said Marcus Guiliano, a restaurant consultant and owner of Aroma Thyme Bistro in Ellenville, New York.

“You want a supplier that cares about you and shows genuine concern,” he said. “You can’t put a price on that. Relationship buying is everything.”

Don’t just sign a contract with the first salesperson who walks in your door. See if they have done their research and at the very least know the types of products you sell and understand the basics of your business.

For example, Guiliano said he has received numerous pitches for items not even on his menu; however, his ears perk up when someone calls and says, “We sell the same albacore tuna you have as your special. We might be able to save you some money.”

The best suppliers should try to keep working your account, too. They might have new items that come in that could improve your business.

“Problem solve for me,” says Guiliano. “Don’t just sell me.”

Like Goldilocks, look for the right size


“The supplier that’s just right will see you as a valued customer, yet have the capability to supply you with more product as you grow. They will listen to your concerns and do their best to deliver on time.” -Ryan McGrotty (Photo: Ryan McGrotty)

Ryan McGrotty, owner of Rep Fitness in Denver, Colorado, uses Goldilocks and the Three Bears as an analogy to finding the just right suppliers.

One that sees you as a tiny fraction of its business will likely put you as its lowest priority, and any hiccups with its other clients might cause you delays, he said. “This happened to us when we first started out. Thirty-to-45-day production timelines got pushed to over 90 days during the peak holiday selling season and we had many products out of stock for Black Friday.”

A too-small supplier may have problems scaling with you and hurt you at the least favorable time: right when you need more product to increase sales.

“The supplier that’s just right will see you as a valued customer, yet have the capability to supply you with more product as you grow,” said McGrotty. “They will listen to your concerns and do their best to deliver on time.”

Take a tour and ask questions

Before agreeing to do business with a supplier, visit its warehouse if feasible, said Guiliano. “Does it look like a professional operation? See how they present themselves.”

If a tour isn’t possible, request samples to make sure they meet your standards, suggested McGrotty.

Also, read the deal carefully and pepper the supplier with questions. Many suppliers require a minimum amount or at least a certain dollar figure for free delivery, said Guiliano. He suggested asking about a cash on delivery discount. One supplier he works with gives 1 percent off. While that may not seem like much, it adds up over time for regular purchases.

“I can definitely use an extra $250 every year,” he said.

Demand seamless ordering

Ordering from a supplier should be relatively seamless, either through texting or emailing a rep or using online portals or apps, he said. It shocks him that some suppliers still don’t have websites, an obvious red flag in 2016.

“Make it easy for me to do business with you,” said Guiliano.

Some owners skip suppliers and try to do all the purchasing themselves, either filling their oversized carts at a wholesale club or driving 90 miles away to pick up fish at a particular market, said Guiliano.

“I was like that years ago,” he admitted. “People never factor in what their time is worth. They could be doing something else more productive than saving $2 on a case of garbage bags. Many people are more focused on just saving money than growing their business.”

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