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Alumna’s Labor of Love Leads to Deal With Safeway

This Valentine’s Day promises to be extra sweet for Bay Area entrepreneur Shirley Ladler-Dennis. Safeway stores (as well as Albertsons and Vons, part of the same conglomerate) around the country are now selling a valentine-themed version of her patented Diva-So-Easy pop-up gift baskets.

The 1995 Academy of Art University School of Illustration graduate started designing and selling her baskets for a variety of occasions through her website, www.divapopshop.com, in 2012. But Ladler-Dennis always dreamed of seeing her products in the aisles of a retail giant such as Safeway. Achieving her goal wasn’t easy. She spent many hours researching Safeway customers, tracking down appropriate corporate contacts and pitching her baskets by email and phone, only to be rejected.

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Academy of Art University School of Illustration alumna and Diva-So-Easy creator Shirley Ladler-Dennis. Photo courtesy of Shirley Ladler-Dennis.

“I heard a lot of ‘no’s,’ but I didn’t let that deter me,” said Ladler-Dennis, after describing how she finally connected with a buyer in Safeway’s placement department only to get a ‘thanks but no thanks’ to her pitch. “I pushed a bit and asked him if someone else in the placement department might be interested in my baskets. He sent me the name of another buyer and she wanted to see samples. She liked them and said Safeway wanted to test them for their 2017 Valentine’s Day season.

That was in 2016. The store plans a year in advance when ordering seasonal items. Before becoming an official Safeway vendor, Ladler-Dennis had to complete a mountain of forms and other tasks.

“It was a little daunting,” she said. “I did all the paperwork, made sure all my records were up to date and sent samples. I was sure I’d dotted all my i’s and crossed my t’s.”

Yet somehow, she missed a form. The small mistake cost her the chance to have Safeway sell her Valentine’s Day baskets in 2017.

“I was crushed, but I just decided to try again,” said Ladler-Dennis. Fortunately, Safeway was still interested in featuring her baskets for would-be cupids in 2018. This time around, Ladler-Dennis not only triple-checked every step of the vendor application process herself, she also got someone else to review each item on her to-do list. Her diligence paid off. She was rewarded with an order for 7,600 baskets. The news was both exciting and nerve-racking.

“I’d never had an order that large, and Safeway was very specific about how everything had to be boxed and delivered,” explained Ladler-Dennis. “There was a lot to learn.”

The fulfillment company that usually packages her baskets and included accessories couldn’t do the job within her budget, so she scrambled to find another one. She also needed to become an expert on all things related to shipping pallets, from purchasing them, to setting them up, to shrink-wrapping them.

“I had to learn all of these new things while working my way through this opportunity, which was a little scary at times,” she said. “I was committing to a huge order and had all this money on the line. If I didn’t get it right, Safeway could reject everything and I’d be stuck with thousands of products sitting on a shelf. But you just have to push those worries out of your mind. About half way through the process, I realized I could do this. I even got everything shipped a week before my deadline in November.”  

Safeway has a policy of not letting vendors know which stores will carry their products. But Ladler-Dennis was thrilled when she recently spotted her baskets in locations in Tracy and Elk Grove. If sales go well, Safeway could offer her baskets for other occasions, such as birthdays and baby showers, year-round.

“It’s not easy to sell to a huge store or get the attention of a particular person,” Ladler-Dennis admitted. “One reason I’ve been successful is because the Academy trained me to think creatively and be innovative. They’re really big on thinking outside the box, and I’ve carried that with me in my career.”

She’ll continue to draw on that philosophy as she takes the next steps to expand her Diva-So-Easy empire. They include working on a new product, an interactive gift bag, and pursuing a possible opportunity to sell her products at Rite Aid.