If you want to succeed, yes, hire a sales rep. Here's why.
As a buyer, I was called on by the following three groups of people: Sales account managers, sales representatives (also known as vendor reps or manufacturer reps), and proprietors of smaller product companies.
What is the difference between these three groups?
Sales account managers are typically employed by large manufacturers that have a pre-existing relationship with a major retailer. These are companies like Proctor & Gamble, Munchkin, Hasbro or even lesser known names. They have years (decades, even) of experience selling to large retailers and have teams dedicated to each retail account. They usually have a satellite office near the HQ offices of major retailers so they can meet with the buyers at the drop of a dime. They have data and resources dedicated to supporting that retailer's business.
Sales representatives resemble sales account managers in almost every way except they are not employed by the manufacturer. Instead they are hired by the manufacturer and typically represent several manufacturers. They key thing to note about both account managers and sales reps have the experience to know what buyers look for and can help develop sell-in strategies.
Proprietors of smaller product companies are probably folks like you. They are just breaking into national retailers or figuring out how to. They have a very lean sales support or do the sales yourself.
Did I work with all three? Sure. But who did I prefer to work with? Account managers and sales reps. Why? Because they know their sh....tuff. They know retail lingo, timelines, processes, how to forecast and measure sales...and a relationship with the buyer that has been built over time. I trust them. I know they won't screw up our business and if they do, they will have the ability to get it back on track. So for these very important reasons, I avoided working with rookies and people with no big retail experience - even if they had a great product.
But did I work directly with smaller product companies? Yes, on occasion. And after vetting out as much risk as possible. And even then, rarely were those relationships without grief. Without prior big retail experience, smaller manufacturers are typically less able to understand buyer's needs, how to navigate the complexities of big retail, inventory management, and how to build strategies to grow sales at shelf. The small companies who were successful did their homework, got up to speed quickly, and hired the necessary people and resources. Like Romy!
So should you work with a sales rep? If you want to stack the cards in your favor, then you absolutely should. It's worth the investment. It is also worth the investment to figure out how to position your product line to meet the needs of a buyer - which is the ultimate way of grabbing their attention and building trust. Finding a sales rep is all about who you know and word-of-mouth recommendations. There are a lot of dishonest sales reps out there, so be sure to get a referral. And like Romy said, before contacting them, you should have your ducks in a row and be prepared to present to them as if they are the retailer.