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Pitching a product to Walmart makes even Bo Jackson nervous

Football and baseball great Bo Jackson is nervous—and that doesn’t happen often. I’m standing with the sports legend in a culinary test kitchen in Bentonville, Arkansas at Walmart headquarters where company buyers are about to sample some of Bo’s wares.

Let give you some context. Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, sells as many as 142,000 different items in its largest Super-Center stores. Space on their shelves is fought for by thousands suppliers from around the world — including potential suppliers like Bo Jackson. But how do the folks at “the company Sam Walton built” decide what items make the cut?

Well, Walmart has what’s known as their “Open Call” day where the company puts out an ask to any and all vendors, in this case those who sell “Made in the USA” products, to come to Bentonville one day in June. Some twelve hundred vendors make the trip. Each gets about 30 minutes in tiny, bare bones rooms to make their pitch. If the Walmart buyer likes what they hear, they might make space for the new product in one, several or all of the company’s more than 4,000 stores.

Products range from food, like local barbecue sauces, to make-up and hair products, to kayaks. Even a flea and tick remover.

And then there’s Bo Jackson. In 2015 he created V-E-J Holdings with the aim of selling high quality meat and fish at reasonable prices, a business model that would seem to fit nicely with Walmart’s. He pitched in the company’s brand new culinary center with several full kitchens.

“This is the pinnacle, being invited to Walmart corporate, is the pinnacle of retail,” Jackson says to me. Jackson admits to having “butterflies” when he’s pitching to the panel of four Walmart buyers who thoughtfully chew on Bo’s steak burgers and crab. (They’re taking notes too!) “I’m betting on my product selling itself,” says Bo as he keeps an eagle eye on the buyers.

The open call event is a particularly busy day for Walmart buyers who scheduled dozens of supplier meetings. Normally that number is much lower but either way, Walmart’s buyers told me that a successful supplier has passion for the product, quality merchandise and an item that fits a niche they don’t already have in their stores.

After the pitch meetings are over the buyer’s job is to determine whether they can purchase the product at a low enough price to make it affordable for their shoppers while still making enough profit to keep Walmart’s shareholders happy.

Did Bo make the grade? No word yet.

It’s enough to keep Bo Jackson’s — and hundreds of other Walmart’s suppliers’ — nerves on edge.

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