For a small business accustomed to producing quantities in the low thousands, the opportunity to supply tens of thousands of products to 3,400 Walmart stores can be a dream come true—or a nightmare, if they are not prepared for the retailer’s expectations.
Ariela Balk, founder and CEO of lingerie and swimwear brand Smart & Sexy and Nell Merlino, CEO of Count Me In, a nonprofit group that helps women entrepreneurs, are committed to helping small businesses as a path to economic growth, but in a decidedly new way—not with incremental growth, but by creating market-flexing, broad-based sales from the get-go.
On the heels of Walmart’s announcement about its commitment to buy an additional $50 billion in U.S. products over the next 10 years, Balk and Merlino recently asked top $100 million sellers to Walmart to share advice with new entrepreneurs who want to prep their products for the retail giant’s buyers. It’s applicable to anyone who has dreamed of getting a crack at Walmart’s 138 million weekly shoppers.
Experts included turnaround titan Lynn Tilton, CEO of Patriarch Partners; clothing mogul Mark Adjmi, CEO of Adjmi Apparel Group; expert "closer" Joey Setton, executive vice president of Saramax Apparel Group; and licensing expert and CEO of Sequential Brands Group Yehuda Shmidman. Here's what they shared:
Your product has to fit Walmart; Walmart doesn’t have to fit your product. The five panelists agree on three basics for anyone considering selling to Walmart: Does your product appeal to Walmart customers; does it fill a void on the retailer’s shelves; and are you willing and able to get your costs low enough to be both profitable and meet Walmart’s strict pricing strategy?
Your infrastructure has to meet order demands. Working with Walmart "is a round-the-clock job, and if you are not ready for that, you should put off your effort to get on store shelves," says Balk, who ships 60 million garments out a year—many of them to Walmart. "Can you handle replenishment needs, logistics, and turnaround times? If you don't have the staff to handle those things, the burden will fall on you," she says. If you can’t hold up your end of the deal, your first chance may be your last. That’s why Balk waited five years before making a deal with Walmart for her Smart & Sexy line. "I needed to understand what I needed to deliver in terms of quality and pricing and what kind of staffing was needed to meet those goals."
Shmidman says that if you don’t have manufacturing capabilities, you should consider licensing your product to a manufacturer as a way to scale your business to meet Walmart’s volume demands. "You may be great at marketing, but if you can’t make money from production, you are out of business," Shmidman says. "That’s the business we’re in—we may not be able to find the best factories, but we know how to build brands."
Understand the true cost of your product. It can be challenging to meet Walmart’s pricing needs, which are lower than most small entrepreneurs are used to, especially if they don’t know what the product actually costs to make. "People often underestimate the cost to produce their product and the overhead required to run their business," says Tilton. "It startles me that so many smart people don’t know the true cost of making their product. It’s beyond cost of goods. Every company has to have a pricing model on every product. What is your wholesale cost? Do you have discounts? Will you take returns? What’s your overhead? Do you need inspectors on the ground?" she says.
Walmart, for instance, demands that manufacturers’ factories comply with their standards, and inspectors are necessary to ensure compliance. Those people cost money, which has to be worked into your bottom line.
Prepare. Once you've got an appointment with Walmart, do your homework. "Before your first one-hour meeting with a buyer, you need to put in 100 hours of research," says Adjmi. That means visiting the departments where your product will likely be stocked and really studying them—the layout, stock, traffic pattern, shoppers in the aisle. Everything. It also means familiarizing yourself with Walmart’s supplier expectations, which are detailed on its website.
"A lot of people say, ‘I know my business,’ but that’s just half the game," Adjimi advises. "I’ve seen these people get blown away in Walmart meetings because they don’t understand what they need to know to answer Walmart’s questions: What does the competition look like? Do your factories match Walmart’s expectations? What margins are you expecting to get? Where will the product fit into the existing category mix in the stores? Is it a regional product, good for 500 stores as opposed to 2,500 stores?"
Not only do you need to know your product better than anyone, you need to know Walmart better than your competitor. "If you don’t, stay home and reschedule the appointment," says Adjimi.
Be confident, yet humble. You can know everything about your product and as much as possible about Walmart’s needs, but there’s always that question that seems to come at you from the side. "Don’t make up an answer," says Balk. "Tell them the truth—say 'I don’t know but I’ll get back to you tomorrow,’ and then find the answer and get back to them."
Don’t leave without a deal. "In order for your company to have revenue, you have to sell something," Joey Setton reminds us. That may seem like a no-brainer, but oftentimes small manufacturers can be so overwhelmed that they don’t leave a buyer meeting with a purchase order in hand. "The biggest impediment to closing is not focusing on what the buyer is saying," said Setton.
He told the story of a salesman who went into Walmart with a great product displayed on a beautiful glossy easel board. Setton was excited because he really thought they had a home run. "My colleague talked about the items and price points. He was doing a great job. At one point the buyer said, ‘Oh, that’s a really cute item,' and she started writing notes about it. But my salesman kept going, talking about more items, flipping the easel board past that item the buyer was so intrigued with."
Setton stepped in and reengaged the buyer on the product she liked. "We spent about 45 minutes talking about how many she would take per store, even though there were 40 other products on the easel display to talk about." Ultimately, they only got through five or six pages—but they wrote orders because Setton listened to the buyer and wasn’t only concerned with getting through the entire product line. "If a buyer is saying, ‘Stop, I like this,’ then stop—because it’s likely you’ll get the order. Your job is not just to try to sell; you have to close."
[Image: Flickr user Nomadic Lass]