Selling to Wal-Mart – My First Visit to Bentonville

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It was in 1994.  The company that I was working for was introducing a line of shelf stable food products, targeting the quick-to-fix meal solutions consumer. At the time I was involved in category management, having both developed and introduced the concept to my organization.  We were busy using our new found category management expertise to help further penetrate our customers, and quite frankly, to become category leaders.  The folk that were in charge of developing the food item weren’t having much success selling it to customers.  When they found out about what we were doing, they felt they could wrap their proposition within a category idea was a bad idea.  On customer they were having an especially difficult time with was Wal-Mart.  So they called me and asked if I would travel to Bentonville, Arkansas with them and help them present their proposal to Wal-Mart. 

I jumped at the opportunity, having long been an admirer of Wal-Mart.  I met with the sales team and did the best I could to integrate their proposal into some type of category management approach – i.e. this item is good for the category, blah, blah, blah – that sort of thing.  Not a very compelling story, but as I mentioned earlier, a bad idea was a bad idea.

Back then, there was no Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport.  If you were flying to Bentonville, you flew out of Dallas Love Field to Tulsa, Oklahoma, rented a car, and drove nearly 2 hours to Bentonville.  Or you took a puddle jumper (turbo-prop) out of Dallas/Fort Worth Airport into Fayetteville, Arkansas and drove up to Bentonville.  Either way, it was an adventure.  We elected to fly on the puddle jumper. 

After a 50 minute bumpy flight we landed in Fayetteville, Arkansas.  We grabbed our rental car and headed to Bentonville.  The drive from Fayetteville to Bentonville hasn’t changed much over the years.  It is still a very beautiful, serene drive.  Almost hypnotic, you begin to wonder how such a mammoth organization could be housed in such a peaceful, tranquil environment. 

When we arrived at Home Office, it looked as though we had pulled up out in front of one of their warehouses and not their headquarters.  It was just a basic building.  Nothing elaborate or fancy.  Just a functional headquarters. Early on, I learned that this was not a fancy organization – it was very lean and focused. 

We signed in, were assigned our ‘room’ and sat down, waiting to be called by the buyers. Sitting in the lobby were suppliers from all over the world.  It was an absolutely amazing thing, to have so many, from so far away, travel to this small community, tucked away in Northwest Arkansas. 

When we were called we went back to a small presentation room, just behind the lobby, and there we awaited the buyer. It was remarkable in its simplicity.  Everything around us, everything we had seen, communicated to the visitor this organizations commitment to delivering the lowest possible price to its customers. I had heard the stories before – don’t fax Wal-Mart because it uses unnecessary paper, make sure your buyer has a toll-free number to call you, don’t present elaborate color presentations – and now everything that I saw underscored these martinet principles.  It was all about saving money to help lower the price for the customer. There was nothing wrong with that.

When our buyer came, a young man, probably no more than three or four years out of college, my colleagues presented their proposal, trying their best to dress it up in a sales driving opportunity for the category.  It took our young buyer all of a few minutes to debunk the entire presentation and rip it apart from top to bottom.  He used words like, “me too”, and “no value”. He kindly declined our proposal, thanked us for making the trip, and excused himself.  As he left, he offered some advice, “go to the store and see what’s missing in the category.  Then come back and see me when you’ve figured that out.” 

A good trip, with a great lesson.