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Ready for Retail? Get Your App on the Map : Page 2

You've had the great idea, written the perfect software, tested it, revised it, debugged it, put it on the Web, and people are downloading it like hotcakes. But where's the money? The real money's on retail store shelves—and you can't get in easily. Find out what the experts say about how to get your commercial applications into retail chains.


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The Iowan Grandmother Litmus Test
"Software developers are not getting strong retail advice from anyone," says Christina Seeyle, President and CEO of Avanquest, a San Mateo, CA-based software publishing and distribution company. "Retail is so far outside where they think they're going to generate their revenue that they never think of it as a possibility. The thought that their product would ever get into Staples is too far out of their grasp."

Seeyle says Avanquest evaluates about 30 new products every two weeks. Most of these are submitted by the manufacturer or developer using a simple form on its Web site. While only a very small number of those will actually make it to the store shelves, the feedback loop can be useful even for products that a publisher rejects. Just going through the process of having your product evaluated can give you valuable input about the marketplace and the commercial viability of your product.

"A lot of times what we provide is a consulting service," says Seeyle, "where we say 'this is not a solution for retail, but we always tell them why. It is kind of a harsh process and it certainly doesn't mean that they're not going to be successful with their product—it just means that it's not appropriate for CompUSA or Best Buy."

In other words, the product must be something that typical consumers living in Middle America would be able to understand that they need, yet be uncertain of how to find it elsewhere. Call it the Iowan grandmother test.

There are three essential factors to getting a retail green light:

  • the right target customer
  • heavy consumer demand for the technology segment
  • demonstrated success at selling the same product online

The Right Target Customer
The product must be broad enough to belong on a retail shelf. "What we do is look to make sure the target market for that product is actually people who would walk through and shop for software at CompUSA," says Seeyle.

"You have to think carefully about what kinds of products are interesting to retailers," says Chapman. The short list, he says, includes: utilities, games, lifestyle products, lower-end development tools, lower-end graphics tools, and image manipulation tools. Distributors tend to specialize: Avanquest handles only utilities, reference, and personal productivity software for home and small office. Entertainment and education software are also popular consumer choices, but are usually handled by publishers who specialize in those segments, such as EA (Electronic Arts) for games.

Chapman recalls that at one time the retail marketplace supported over 100 word processors and a similarly large number of spreadsheets. The "throw-it-against the wall development process" that worked during the 80s—where dozens of 'me-too' software titles were released—is no longer viable, he explains. "You want to look for new niches and areas of opportunity. That's something you want to think about before you sit down and spend three years of your life coding away."

You also need to know which stores will carry it.

"Each retailer has its own target customer," explains Seeyle. Avanquest tries to set appropriate developer expectations about where the product should be carried. "That's one of the reasons you go to a publisher. Because we know what to pitch to Wal-Mart, what to pitch to Costco, what to pitch to Best Buy, and what to pitch to CompUSA or Staples."

But that doesn't mean that a perfect fit with any one retailer's bailiwick is enough to get a publishing contract. Seeyle says Avanquest accepts only products that will—at a minimum—fit in at CompUSA, Fry's Electronics, and Micro Center, as well as at least one of the office superstores.

Heavy Demand for the Segment
Retail is a good 6 to 8 months—and maybe more—behind the critical mass for so-called early adopters. For example, anti-spyware products have been an inarguable necessity for power users for more than a year, but according to Seeyle only one anti-spyware product is currently on store shelves. (Avanquest is about to double the offerings by releasing Lavasoft's Adaware into retail.)

Ad-blocking is currently very popular, but the segment, Seeyle says, is flooded. "There just isn't that much room on the shelves."

Avanquest checks in regularly with retailers to get feedback about what's selling well and what product segments store buyers are eager to see. Avanquest frequently proactively researches and recruits products they bring to market to fill a specific retail opportunity.

Success Online
"We very rarely take a client that doesn't already have some level of traction on the Web," says Seeyle. And that traction can't consist solely of high download figures either (see sidebar, "7 Tips on the Road to Retail"). Seeyle says she doesn't care how many people have downloaded a product—the only customers she cares about are the ones who laid out cash to own it. You have to have a working revenue model on the Web, she says.

Chapman says it's OK to track downloads if you're using it to show a strong conversion to sales. "If you're generating between $5,000 and $10,000 a month in sales, you're at the threshold," he says. "You're showing steady demand." But his No. 1 piece of advice to developers is: Understand that you must generate direct sales before attempting to break into retail or channel distribution.

Bottom line: You'll have a much easier time finding a publisher to take you to retail if you're already successfully selling product on the Internet..



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