Getting products on Wal-Mart shelves is still thought of as reaching the Holy Grail for many suppliers, but the journey can be long and challenging in what is a highly competitive retail landscape, according to veteran suppliers who spoke recently at the Fast Start supplier summit held in Bentonville.

Derek Ridenoure, a national account manager for CF Sauer, said when talking with buyers the focus is always on the customer. He said staying true to founder Sam Walton’s mantra — the customer is always first — buyer teams always have the customer in mind.

Ridenoure spent 12 years at Wal-Mart, working in operations and asset management for the retail giant until 2006. He said the days of merchants “stacking it deep and selling it cheap” are long gone for the retail giant as the power has shifted toward the customer.

“Customers spend 21 seconds in front of a category and in that time they make up their mind about what they are going to buy,” he said. “If you are not fast from a supplier perspective, if your packaging doesn’t stand out, or it doesn’t catch a consumer’s eye, how are you going to compete?”

He said consumers often don’t even read the packaging. They just rush in and get what they previously purchased. He said buyers know what customers are putting in their carts and that’s what they want on the shelves. He said that makes it hard for new products to get shelf space.

“Amazon, like them or hate them, created complete price transparency for the consumer and that’s changing the game. I was doing some remodeling at my home recently and I needed an item so I called a couple of local shops and was told it would be $185, plus $30 to get it here in three days. Amazon had it for $85 and I could get it the next day,” Ridenoure said.

“You are seeing Wal-Mart getting very competitive with Amazon, and quite frankly one thing Amazon has going for it the ease of doing business there. The Wal-Mart supplier agreement is something like 12 to 15 pages long, Amazon will let anyone do business there. I am not saying this is bad for Wal-Mart, but it’s a challenge,” he added.

Ridenoure said price transparency is forcing brick-and-mortar retailers to monitor margins to be competitive online. He said online penetration in the grocery category is 12% and 2% in fresh foods, and there is still a long way to go in these categories. But in apparel and electronics, those categories have moved online to the point where sales are weaker at brick and mortar.

Ridenoure told the new suppliers that Wal-Mart buyers have their annual evaluations every March and April and that is the time for suppliers to make sure their goals align with the buyers.

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