Professional Bull Riders may be a niche sport, but its TV ratings are up 20% this year, and its audience over-indexes with Walmart shoppers. So when bulls and riders showed up at Walmart stores in Sioux Falls, S.D., Little Rock, Ark., and Las Vegas earlier this year, they weren't at all out of place, and made enough impact that the league will take its show on the road to 40 more Walmart stores later this year, with plans to hit another 200 next year.
They don't actually ride bulls in the parking lots. But the pro bull riders do sign autographs in stores and the bulls make an appearance in tractor-trailers outside. It was enough to draw lines of fans and a 21-photo online spread in the Argus (S.D.) Leader in March.
This is what Walmart executives call retail-tainment, an idea that has lived in their stores for decades in the form of Oreo-stacking contests and such, but faded in recent years. Now it's back with a vengeance. And it's hard for Walmart not to like, in part because it's free to the giant retailer.
Speaking at a University of Arkansas Emerging Trends in Retail conference June 14, new Walmart Chief Marketing Officer Tony Rogers made a big push for retail-tainment to a group of mostly supplier executives.
But even after rattling off a slew of new retail-tainment programs he'd like suppliers to participate in, he made clear they shouldn't come at the expense of Walmart paying more for products.
"We never want to be a distraction from the core mission of having the lowest price on the right stuff," Mr. Rogers said. "But once we get to that point, come talk to us."
Indeed, he encouraged suppliers to come to marketing alongside buyers, just to make that point clear. "The marketing strategy is the company strategy," Mr. Rogers said. "In the past, marketing and merchandising may have been separated a little bit, and you would find some daylight between us."
Just a year ago, much of Walmart's TV advertising was funded by brands, often in programs developed as the merchandise deal was getting done. Walmart is no longer pushing for TV, and it's trying to separate retail-tainment or other marketing programs from the deal.
Often, as in the case of Professional Bull Riders, the events are operated and funded entirely by third parties backed by brand sponsors.
The emphasis on events in stores is driven by a couple of factors. One is Walmart research that 94% of shoppers say their decisions are more likely to be influenced by in-store demos than ads, Mr. Rogers said, with in-store sampling driving a quadrupling of product sales when it runs.
Another is that for all of Walmart's focus on digital and social media and e-commerce, it also has found people still want an enjoyable store experience.
"There's an interesting little paradox we're seeing in our research," Mr. Rogers said. "Just as the world is becoming more digital, a lot of our customers are craving for a more physical, real experience, and a live retail experience."
He pointed to Walmart's health fairs that may have saved the lives of three shoppers who registered off-the-charts high blood pressure and rushed to hospitals, or its in-store "Chosen by Kids" toy fairs, showcasing items picked by test groups of real kids. Outside the convention ballroom where he spoke, Walmart was also showcasing other new ideas for store events, such as weekly "New Item Friday" displays that will sample products and get shoppers used to the idea that they can find new products at their stores every week.
Walmart U.S. Chief Merchandising Officer Steven Bratspies also spoke glowingly about the potential of retail-tainment along with its appetite for digital content that helps drive search and conversions both online and in store as he continued the theme that low prices come before any marketing support.
He made specific shout-outs to marketers that have gotten on board Walmart's cost-reduction programs by "leveling terms and allowances across our business, allowing for reinvestment and moving costs to the right places," which included Kimberly-Clark Corp., Henkel, General Mills and Helen of Troy. Separately he praised other marketers that have made big strides in providing online content and search optimization including Procter & Gamble Co., Unilever and Mattel.
So is that desire for ever lower prices even as marketers pony up for more in-store entertainment and online content nothing more than, well, a load of bull?
Provided it actually happens in practice as stated in theory, it's fairly old school for Walmart. Just like Walmart is bringing back the smiley face to signal low prices, trying to keep co-op advertising and marketing dollars out of the price negotiations brings back the old Walmart "lowest net cost" deal, without the trade promotion terms playing a role as it might be at other retailers. One supplier rep likened it to the way things were done when Walmart buyers were wondering if comparable-store sales growth would be 11% or 12%, not, as they do now, hoping to keep a streak of low-single-digit quarterly comps alive.
It's not clear that's going to bring back rapid growth for a retailer with a half trillion dollars in global sales and growing competition from the likes of Amazon, dollar stores, Aldi and others.
Also, Walmart's recent demands for fees to stock new items in warehouses works a lot like slotting fees elsewhere, and is a bit at odds with encouraging new products. Friday events or no, supplier reps say it's gotten harder the past year to sell in new products as Walmart looks to streamline assortments and de-clutter its aisles.
But the Professional Bull Riders experience is proof that if you ride the bull long enough, or dust yourself off after a fall, you'll get another chance to win.
The relationship actually extends back to around the turn of the millennium, with similar events at stores, backed by PepsiCo's Frito-Lay (from which Mr. Rogers came before Walmart), and Kraft among others. As Walmart's interest in retail-tainment waned, the bull riders headed into the sunset.
Jim Haworth, a former Walmart chief operating officer who's now chairman of PBR (bought last year by William Morris Endeavor) helped bring the idea back to the retailer after new management came into Walmart the past two years.
Mr. Haworth liked PBR when he was at Walmart, and calls it "a great sport of an extreme nature that really seemed to fit our fan base."
The retail-tainment idea, whose return he obviously welcomes, aims to get consumers "off the couch to maybe make one more trip, or pick up another item, by creating an experience broader than their normal shopping patterns."