If you’re the developer of a consumer product, getting it on the shelves of a big box retailer is definitely a goal, and there’s no bigger goal than getting into Walmart. According to their site, they have 4,692 retail sites in the US alone. But getting through the bureaucracy of these organizations and in front of the right buyers is tough. To their credit, Walmart has done some things to make this a bit easier for smaller businesses, especially those with Made in the USA products. On June 28th, they held the 2017 Open Call event to allow these type of companies to pitch to their buyers. I had the opportunity to represent the Card Caddy and I’ll run down the process.
I actually don’t remember how I learned about the event. The Card Caddy is for sale on Walmart.com so I think I got an email from that system about it. Being on Walmart.com is an important difference from being in physical retail stores. We are a drop ship vendor (DSV) on Walmart.com, meaning that we ship out our product either directly to customers or to stores for pickup from sales made through their website, but Walmart does not carry any of our inventory. Walmart is trying to sign up pretty much every product they can to at least be a DSV on their site in order to compete with Amazon – it doesn’t really cost them anything since they don’t carry the inventory, and they already have the online system built. So, it’s not as important as it sounds to have your product on Walmart.com, but it’s still an accomplishment, and the process does provide you with the very important vendor number. Having that number is big deal if you get into retail locations, because it takes about 6 months to get one.
Anyway, where ever I learned about it, there was an online portal you registered your product with and applied for a spot in the Open Call. I heard back in about a week that I had been selected to pitch in the Toy and Games department (I had also requested the Impluse Buy/Check Out and Sporting Goods/Game Room departments, but apparently was not selected for those.) According to their press release, around 500 companies were selected along with the Card Caddy to pitch.
Their portal was well setup, and once I got the email about being selected, they advised me that it was safe to make travel arrangements. As I noted in the last blog post, the last day of the ASTRA trade show (in Philly) was on the day of the Walmart pitch (in Bentonville, AR). I left Philly the afternoon of the 27th and the trade show was in the capable hands of my partner Patrick, and was scheduled to connect through Dallas and get into Bentonville around 9pm – plenty of time to rent the car, get to the hotel and get a good night’s sleep before the pitch the next day, right? Well, travel is travel, and I ended up having to sleep at the Dallas airport that night and catch the first flight to Bentonville on the morning of the 28th – luckily my pitch wasn’t until the afternoon. It was my first airport sleepover, and there were no roasted marshmallows or ghost stories, but I eventually made it there safe and sound. The Bentonville aiport (actually the NW Arkansas Regional Airport – XNA) is really nice – and they had a card table and giant chess board in the terminal, which I figured must be a good omen.
I get my car and drive the 20 minutes to the Walmart Home Office building and got there around 9:30am. I got checked in painlessly – they had a nice barcode scanning process, and in case I couldn’t figure that out, there was an army of friendly vest-clad volunteers to help out. The agenda had a number of officials and executives giving keynote speeches on the importance of American manufacturing and Walmart’s commitment to it – I only caught the last few, but they were engaging and enthusiastic. The agenda transitioned to lunch at 11am, provided by Walmart. The company lived up to its reputation for thriftiness – the meal was burgers and dogs cooked on grills in the parking lot, with sides of beans, slaw, chips and sodas. It was set up in a large conference room, where they were playing video tutorials of how to set up your products on Walmart.com. They made the point a number of times that every product that was selected to come to the Open Call event was automatically approved for Walmart.com, regardless of whether you got an order for retail stores. The emphasis to fill their online catalog is pretty strong.
After lunch, I was able to get to my hotel and shower (remember, I had to sleep at the airport and still had yesterday’s clothes on!). My pitch was at 2:40-3:20 and I had scoped out the room earlier at lunch, so I got there at 2:30 feeling ready to go. The pitch room was one of probably 50 identical rooms just for this purpose. The room was probably 8×8, with a table and 6 chairs, a flat screen monitor (no computer attached) and a metal clothes-type rack on one wall. There were lots of warnings about not taking pictures all through the building, so I chickened out on taking one, but the room is just a boring as you’re thinking.
I was told to wait in the room by one of the vest-clad volunteers, and it was just about 2:50 when my buyers arrived – I rose and introduced myself, shook hands and then they asked me to have a seat across the table. There were two people I met with – one was the head boardgame and puzzles buyer and the other seemed to be an assistant or subordinate – she did not have a card and didn’t give me a title during the introductions.
I am very happy with how I did my pitch – I hit everything I wanted to, in the order I wanted to do it. But the head buyer just never had that “spark” that almost everyone has when they see the Card Caddy – she asked very few questions, and I had to bring up almost all of the “next steps” type of questions like price, production capacity, shipping locations, etc. The buyer’s assistant was much more engaged and excited about the product, and she asked a lot of questions. She also made those product suggestions I love to hear like “This would be great for travel” and “You can customize them by snapping in your own chip into the hole”. That shows me that they get the base idea of the Card Caddy and are thinking of all of the other cool applications for it, too.
After some back and forth with the enthusiastic buyer, I could feel things were trailing off, and especially the head buyer was zoning out, so I made a final push for an order with “I think this would be great for a trial run in 10 or 20 stores and we could fill an order like that in a month”. In response, I got “well, we’ll be back in touch by the end of the week with detailed feedback”. We wrapped up the meeting with the usual pleasantries, and as they walked off, I heard the head buyer say to her associate “I can’t wait to get back to my office and hide”. Kind of a bummer way to end things. We were done right at 3:10, so I didn’t even use all my time.
Suffice it to say, we didn’t get an order on the spot – I wasn’t expecting anything to happen right there, but apparently over 700 deals with other companies were made right after the pitch. It’s been almost two weeks now and still no “detailed feedback” or response to my follow-up email or voicemail I sent to the head buyer about a week after the pitch. Not getting any response at all is pretty disappointing and unprofessional, especially given the good organization and enthusiasm I saw on the front end of the process.
After the pitch, there was a reception at a venue in downtown Bentonville. I had some time to kill before it started, so I walked the downtown and saw a indie toy store that I stopped into and pitched the Card Caddy. They didn’t carry cards or games, mainly just baby stuff, but the owner was way more engaged and receptive to my cold call sale than the buyer who presumably approved my pitch when I applied. Anyway, I also stopped into the Walmart museum at the site of Sam Walton’s original 5 and Dime store on the town square. It was nice and very well done (there was also a typical museum gift shop with cards and games where the Card Caddy would have made a great addition). I headed to the reception, where they did spring for an open bar and good finger foods (although it looked like the reception may have been sponsored by the local economic development organization). I chatted with a couple of other vendors, all of whom got deals on the spot, and that wore down my morale pretty quickly, so I headed back to the hotel for the rest of the night and made my way home the next morning.
Overall, I applaud Walmart’s commitment to US made products and how they are going about sourcing them. The event was well run and strictly business. And, it’s frustrating not to get any response from the buyer at all. But, we haven’t gotten an official “no” yet, so maybe they are just taking so long to put a huge order together!
UPDATES (August 28, 2017)
Still trying to get a response from my buyer, I sent an email to a generic email address we were given for support at the event. I wasn’t expecting any response from that, but quickly got an reply from a Sr Manager saying that they would track down the buyer and have her respond. And sure enough about a week later, I did get a 4 sentence response from my buyer, and it was the rejection I was expecting at this point. Here are 2 of the sentences: “Unfortunately I am not able to support this item at this time. I think that as you continue to grow the product, please keep me in mind.”
What has been most surprising about my interaction with Walmart so far has been the difference between the fantastic professionalism and enthusiasm of the top-level staff and the complete lack of engagement of the buyer. OK, fine, my product is not something you want to purchase for Walmart – what should I work on? Getting more sales? Packaging? Or is it something you’d never carry? It’s frustrating to be promised feedback and get that in response.
In another example of the engagement of Walmart staff, a week or so ago I got an email from a Walmart employee in the buyer department (although not part of the section I am pitching to). He wrote that he enjoyed reading my blog post, and that he passed along a message to the appropriate group about my issue. And remember that pitch room I was too chicken to take a picture of? He took one and attached it to his email! What a cool, nice gesture! So, in spite of the setback from the buyer, I’m keeping positive about Walmart in general, and just working on selling more Card Caddies where ever I can!