The last thing anyone wants to think about during the peak of the hot summer is the snowy, icy winter. Smart distributors know, however, that this is the ideal time to focus on ice melt sales. Why now? It’s because preseason sales (and taking full advantage of manufacturer extras) are the best ways to ensure a profitable winter.

Every distributor who includes seasonal products in his inventory knows that sales are as unpredictable as the weather forecast. Unlike other products with fairly predictable sales levels, ice melt sales depend on something as undependable as a storm.

“The biggest factor we can’t control — and the most discouraging part of the ice melter business — is the weather,” says Kevin Wice, president of Xynyth Mfg., Corp., Vancouver, British Columbia. “We have several people who do nothing but follow the weather forecasts, but you can’t predict what happens.”

“They can come out with all the predictions they want — the Farmer’s Almanac, woolly worms…,” jokes Dick Miller, executive vice president of Frank Miller & Sons, Chicago. “It doesn’t matter. Weather is unpredictable. We don’t know what kind of winter we will have.”

Hit the Ground Running
How can a distributor have some certainty about ice melt sales this winter, without knowing what the weather will be? By getting started early, manufacturers agree.

“There are two types of distributors: proactive and reactive,” Wice says. “The proactive distributors are the most successful with ice melter. They put together a marketing strategy for ice melters. They think about it in July and August. Regardless of what the weather is like, they get the business.

“The reactive ones sit on the fence and react to the storms,” Wice continues. “They get the tail end of the business. They really miss the boat and don’t make as much profit as they could if they put some effort behind it.”

Want to be proactive? The first crucial step is to find a reliable ice melt manufacturer and to take advantage of all it has to offer.

“Good communication between the manufacturer and distributor is essential,” says Miller. “Good manufacturers will share everything they know about the marketplace.”

Manufacturers suggest arranging a meeting with suppliers long before the winter season. This is a time for distributors to discuss how they can best compete in the marketplace.

“When I meet with a new distributor, I ask him who his competition is. We want to get them the right product at the right price so they can compete in the market,” Miller says. “If he tells me ice melt sales are slipping, we work together to figure out why. Is the competition giving the product away or is he developing a private label product? We work together to combat it.”

Your manufacturer can also help you decide exactly which ice melter products you should carry. A common mistake distributors make is trying to be everything to everyone.

“Too many distributors carry too many product lines in an effort to please their customers,” says Greg MacDonnell, senior marketing manager for The Dow Chemical Co., Ludington, Mich. “There are hundreds of different ice melters with varying performance attributes. A good distributor will educate customers on the differences between products and guide them to a product that will meet their needs in all weather conditions.”

Manufacturers recommend that distributors tell their manufacturer about the specific needs of the customers (for example, a hospital with a helicopter pad vs. a hospital with only sidewalks to worry about). With that information in hand, distributors should be able to work with manufacturers to cull down the hundreds of products to just a handful of essentials.

Stock Up
Securing a supplier before the first storm hits is essential. There is no reason to lose ice melt sales because of a lack of supply.

“There was a real wake-up call to a lot of distributors this past winter because a lot of places were hit hard or finally had a normal winter again,” Wice says. “There were a lot of people who ran out because they weren’t prepared.”

End-user customers want to know that distributors can quickly respond to their ice-melt needs. “When the weather hits, customers need to know that product is always available,” says Rich Otterstrom, a chemist for CP Industries in Salt Lake City.

Of course, most distributors simply cannot house inventory of each of the many available product lines. That’s another reason to get to work early with the manufacturer.

“Our approach is that we try to have more than what we sold the previous season on the floor,” says Ken Ossian, owner, Ossian Chemicals, Davenport, Iowa. “We go into the season with the idea that we are going to have carry-over inventory. It’s less expensive for us to carry over the inventory at our place than it is for the distributor to carry it over in his place.”

Preseason planning should also include discussion of incentives and other ways manufacturers can help secure early orders.
“To make it worthwhile, there are preseason incentives for the end user and for the salespeople who want to spend the time and effort to move the product,” Ossian says.

Nearly every ice-melt manufacturer offers sales incentives, particularly for distributors who get started early. Order by a certain date and receive price discounts; take inventory early and you may benefit from late billing. One manufacturer may include free technical help with a purchase, while another may provide ice-melt storage bins that can be personalized and provided at no cost to customers.

Customer Care
Speaking of the end user, a distributor’s second priority (after carefully communicating with its supplier) is to reach out early to customers. Successful distributors typically start ice melt sales between July and September.

“Our distributors who do significant volume are always the ones that are active pre-sellers,” Ossian says. “The primary idea is the first one who gets the order will also get the second and third reorders. The early bird gets the worm.”

Salespeople should use the summer months to set up preseason planning meetings with customers. This time should be spent reviewing the client’s ice melt inventory and order history. The salesperson should also have a thorough understanding of the customer’s ice-melter needs to provide him or her with the best product.

“Don’t just sell your customers any ice melter,” says Millie Boss, jan/san product manager for North American Salt Co., Overland Park, Kan. “Find out where and how the product is being used, and match the best product to their application. For example, if your customer routinely uses ice melter around landscaped areas, focus on selling a product that won’t harm vegetation. Customers may request the ice melter with the lowest melting temperature, but that might not be the best choice for their application.”

After the initial sales call, work with suppliers to devise specific selling strategies that can maximize sales and profits. Also, be sure to keep track of customer inventories so they are never left scrambling to get product.

Learn the Ropes
Distributors should take advantage of everything their suppliers have to offer. In addition to discounts, stocking inventory, and sales assistance, most manufacturers also provide free education to their distributors.

“Any good manufacturer has a training program for salespeople,” Miller says. “If you haven’t had a seminar in a few years, ask your supplier to hold one. It’s good to educate new salespeople and to talk about new products in the marketplace.” (See sidebar for more information about ice melt product developments.)

Distributors need to be fully informed about the products they sell. With several thousand line items in the company inventory, this isn’t easy. It may be wise to have just one or two people in a sales force who are well versed in this product line. These folks can then share their knowledge with the other salespeople as needed.

In addition to seminars, many manufacturers also offer educational brochures and videos about their products. These items are helpful to sales forces and can often be given to customers who need to be educated.

“Many customers buy a product because it is the one they have always purchased,” Otterstrom says. “As long as it works, they don’t see a reason to change, when in truth the added maintenance and damage costs caused by the products they use end up making the ice melt much more expensive.”

Early Predictions
While ice melt manufacturers are quick to point out the imprecision of weather forecasts, they can’t help but make some predictions about this season’s sales.

“We know this preseason is going to be very, very good,” Ossian says. “We know that because we had an above-average winter and it was a late winter, which means there’s not a lot of product in the pipeline.”

“If it was my business, I’d be out there early, especially if you had a bad winter the season before,” Miller says. “Ice melt can be a big piece of the pie. If you have a bad winter, you can see it on the bottom line.”

Ice Melt Innovation: Why Change A Good Thing?

Most ice melters are made from some combination of the same five materials: calcium chloride, sodium chloride, potassium chloride, magnesium chloride and urea. That means it is a product category that does not see many major changes.

“Ice melter is one of those products, like a bed, that a lot of people tweak,” says Kevin Wice, president of Xynyth Mfg., Vancouver, B.C. “The springs may be different, but there hasn’t been a revolution — we don’t sleep standing up. It’s the same technology that was used eons ago, and ice melter is similar.”

Perhaps the biggest change in recent years is how informed customers have become about ice melt.

“Customers are making more educated decisions,” Greg MacDonnell of Dow Chemical, Ludington, Mich., says. “There are many wild claims on performance that are not substantiated and many companies unwilling to detail exactly what their ice-melt product contains. Over time, customers are starting to scrutinize their options more closely and ask more questions.”

There have been some changes to this basic product. Newer ice melters are low- or non-damaging to surfaces and plants. Liquids (rather than traditional granules) are becoming more popular. Time-release, color-coded, environmentally friendly, and blended ice melters are also more readily available. And customers have responded favorably to such packaging changes as totes with scoops and re-sealable bags.

Becky Mollenkamp is a freelance writer based in Des Moines, Iowa.