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Wal-Mart’s New Product Search

However you describe it — health and wellness, natural/organic, whole health — this industry was built on start-up manufacturers and entrepreneurs with big visions. Read the histories of Stonyfield FarmBurt’s Bees or Kashi. Today, it might be hard to imagine Gary Hirshberg tramping through a muddy Vermont farm or Burt Shavitz working out of an old one-room schoolhouse in Maine… but that’s how these multi-million-dollar companies got their start, and they are fantastic, authentic stories that go to the heart of what makes this entire movement so cool.

Even though the movement is now an industry, it’s still grounded in firm beliefs and a sense of ethics about the way we should treat the earth, whether we’re farming, processing or manufacturing. Small companies and start-ups thrive in this environment, and today they have a number of venues in which to sell their wares. Consumers now visit specialty websites or farmers’ markets as alternatives to brick-and-mortar stores, where they rely on big brands, slotting fees and promotional allowances.

That might soon change. WalmartLabs, the commerce think tank created by the world’s largest retailer, is launching Get On the Shelf, a contest inviting product developers of all kinds and sizes to submit their item for placement on store shelves, and on Customers will do the voting this spring.

“The top three products will have the chance to receive shelf space on, plus featuring on the home page reaching an audience of over 50 million people,” states the narrator on the campaign’s promotional video. “And inclusion in our email newsletters that go out to tens of millions of people.”

The potential is enormous, but so are the challenges. There may be only a single person making that winning organic breakfast cereal or those exercise shoes. Wal-Mart is promising to help strategize scaling-up production and marketing support.

“Anyone with a great product in any product category that Wal-Mart carries is welcome to participate. It doesn’t matter if the contestant is big or small,” the narrator goes onto say.

Recently, I had the chance to interview Richard Demb, co-founder of the online Abe’s Market about this very subject. We were discussing growth in the healthy snack category when he noted how his virtual store benefits consumers.

“They’re not letting themselves be resigned to what they can just find within a five-mile radius of their home,” he said. “Snacking is an exciting place for an entrepreneur today.”

And it’s not just Wal-Mart embarking on this kind of search. Hiller’s Markets outside of Detroit, Mich., recently introduced “Michigan Showcase,” inviting locals to submit their product for possible promotion in Hiller’s stores.

Keep an eye out. The next big thing in health and wellness, natural/organic or whole health could be on store shelves in places like Hlller’s, and online at Wal-Mart, next spring.

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