By Kyle Arnold Orlando Sentinel
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Hundreds of small business owners are vying for spots on the shelves of major retailers like Wal-Mart and Target. To get there, some are going through "Shark-Tank" like pitch competitions, to get their foot in the door.
Looking to shake up the product pipeline, retailers are putting hundreds of small entrepreneurs and manufacturers through a process that increasingly resembles reality TV shows.
Janel Young, whose company makes all-natural dog treats and shampoos in Longwood, joined hundreds of other entrepreneurs in late June at Wal-Mart headquarters in Bentonville, Ark. They pitched products to buyers at the world's largest retail company with hopes of getting their goods onto shelves.
Some of the biggest retailers, such as Winn-Dixie and Wal-Mart, are holding open calls to look for the next breakthrough product, with on-the-spot offers at stake.
Other retailers embrace technology to get new products. Target has partnered with a company called RangeMe, through which small companies can pitch products over the internet.
"My sense is that the retail industry is trying to figure out what the future is and bring in some innovation," said Cari Coats, executive director for the Center for Advanced Entrepreneurship at Rollins College's Crummer Graduate School of Business. "It's really something that has come in the last year, maybe two, and you are seeing it everywhere now."
Young doesn't know yet whether Nava Pets treats and shampoos will be on Wal-Mart shelves.
She is hoping the pet treats will be a hit because they fit two growing retail segments: pets and organics. Her products already sell online on Walmart.com, through a third-party supplier, and on Amazon. They're also in Lucky's Market and a few Kroger stores in Georgia.
But a deal with Wal-Mart would put her products in front of millions of customers, she said.
"I think selling to Wal-Mart would be huge," Young said. "It opens doors for you to work with other vendors and retailers. If you are able to handle what Wal-Mart is ordering, you can handle anything."
Local company O'Dang Hummus netted a preliminary deal at the same event to start selling the snack food with the retail giant, but is waiting to hear which locations will carry its products, owner Jesse Wolfe said.
O'Dang specializes in bold hummus flavors, such as buffalo wings, pizza and dessert varieties.
Wolfe is familiar with business pitch competitions, having appeared on the ABC entrepreneur reality show Shark Tank in 2016.
"Wal-Mart pretty much has a giant facility with hundreds of small conference rooms and they line you up and give you 30 minutes to sell," he said. "It's about half as long as you usually have to present."
O'Dang has gotten deals to sell in grocery stores before, but in 2014, Wolfe had to go store-to-store and pitch his product to individual store managers. That led to him selling hummus and dressings at Whole Food stores in Florida, as well as a few other stores in the area.
After getting Wal-Mart's offer, O'Dang Hummus snagged an investment deal with local venture capital group Keen Growth Capital. O'Dang also recently signed a deal with a manufacturer in South Florida that will give it the ability to make enough hummus and dressing to sell on a national scale.
Wolfe said he could have it on the shelves as early as fall at Wal-Mart, and he is working with Publix as well. Many retailers have stipulations for their pitch programs. Wal-Mart requires products be made or sourced in the United States. Winn-Dixie is looking for local products through its pitch competition.
Uncle Matty's Food Co. went to Winn-Dixie's pitch competition for the third time in a row to keep the Orlando-based barbecue company on shelves there.
Retailers' pitch competitions put a twist on the methods of technology and venture capital worlds.
"Pitch competitions are fairly common in the entrepreneur land, because you are looking for fresh perspectives," Coats said. "But if you are pitching to a retail company, you aren't necessarily looking for funding. You want exposure."
On the other side, retailers are looking for a way to differentiate themselves with new products, Coats said.
Often, Wal-Mart will test new products in a few hundred stores before distributing to its 4,177 stores nationwide.
"The goal for us is to streamline our process and maybe make it a little easier for small suppliers to get in the door," said Twilla Brooks, whose team of buyers at Wal-Mart started its process in May. "We also want to get new products to our customers."