After Nathan and I had completed our first prototypes, we needed to find places to set up some tables, show off our prototypes, and ask people for feedback about them. I thought this would be easy and wasn't expecting to have any trouble.
I started calling athletic clubs, bike shops, YMCA's, etc in my area, and I heard a similar message from all of them. It was either 1) "You can't set up a table at our location because you might be competition", or 2) "You can't set up a table at our location without paying to become a sponsor/supporter of our organization", or 3) "If I let you set up a table at my gym, will you and your husband get memberships?"
It reminded me of this political cartoon I saw recently depicting government lobbyists:
I was so surprised! Maybe I shouldn't have been...but I was!
I even posed my question to business owners in this way: "Would you consider allowing Natril Gear to set up a table at your organization to show our prototypes and gather feedback. I think it would be a win-win-win situation for your business, your customers, and Natril Gear, because your organization and Natril Gear share a common goal of helping people pursue healthy, happy lifestyles, and your customers would be pleased to see us there because we will have free giveaways!"
Short story, we were unable to set up a table at ANY local organization. Not even at a BIKE SHOP. So I started looking in a new direction – events – and had much better luck.
We found one business who took our prototypes and informational hand-outs to events they were going to and then displayed our things on their table! Then we found another business that let us share their booth space at two different bike and community events!
I got in touch with a particular event coordinator who let us set up a booth/table without paying any sponsorship fees! We found another event coordinator that was willing to pass our materials out for us when we couldn't be there ourselves!
It was amazing! Trying to get in stores was atrocious, but going to live events was almost a cake-walk! Events are where we wanted to be in the first place, but I had just assumed they would be too expensive and difficult for us to attend – I was so wrong!
I would encourage you to check out live events, trade shows, community festivals, industry events, etc... This is a GREAT way to get to know your customers and help them get to know you, your business, and your product. At one event, Nathan spent almost an hour (maybe more) talking to one man swapping bike stories and getting to know him!
I DO think it is worthwhile to contact local businesses, but just be aware that they might view you as unwanted competition. All the events and event coordinators we've talked to though have been happy to work with us.
Best of luck, and happy promoting!