Move Over, 'American Idol': Walmart's the Next Reality Giant

Marmalade, Dog Shoes, Other Products Jockey to Win Votes for Space on Retailer's Shelves

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Having dabbled in everything from financial services to video streaming, Walmart Stores is now trying its hand at producing a reality show -- turning the intense competition to get products on its shelves into an online contest with videos and voting.

The retailer's @WalmartLabs e-commerce and social-media R&D unit is today formally launching a "Get on the Shelf" program, inviting companies small and large to submit product ideas along with supporting videos. Consumers will vote on which products they'd like to see make it to Walmart .com or their local Walmart store. The top three vote-getters will be sold on Walmart .com, and a grand prize winner will be featured on the home page for its 50 million monthly unique visitors and in select Walmart stores.

That Walmart is launching the program the day "American Idol" begins its 2012 season is just a happy coincidence, a spokeswoman said. Thanks to a soft launch to work out kinks, and publicity that included mentions on Walmart 's blogs for New York City and Washington, the marketers behind some 60 products are singing for their supper at the website

They include the "Marmalade Lady," who submitted a video apparently taken at the 2008 North Carolina State Fair to support Sundae MmmMarmalade with hints of strawberry, pineapple and French vanilla. Hugs Pet Products has submitted several entries backed by professional-looking direct-response ads for, among other things, a portable dog wash and Uggs-like Pugz Shoes for dogs.

Would-be suppliers have until Feb. 22 to submit entries. Two waves of voting will take place March 7 through April 4 to pick 10 finalists and April 11 thru April 24 to select the final three. Just like "American Idol" contestants, the marketers will be able to use social media or any other method to get friends, families and hometowns to vote for them. After all, seeing how well the marketers can generate interest is part of the contest, said Chris Bolte, VP of @WalmartLabs.

The aim of @WalmartLabs is not only to develop e-commerce and social-media platforms and technologies, but to generate innovation in how the retailer does business, Mr. Bolte said. While Walmart does a great job of stocking shelves with products consumers want, he said, "we wanted to try something new and different around enabling our consumers to have an opportunity to pick products we should be carrying."

The move isn't meant to replace buyers either for Walmart .com or Walmart , Mr. Bolte said, "but we wanted to enable them to identify and source products that maybe they hadn't thought of before."

The venture is experimental but could be repeated, according to Mr. Bolte. "It has all the legs and attributes and qualities for something that could be a continuous program," he said. It might ultimately be segmented by country, region or category, but the first edition is open only to U.S.-based companies. Walmart will promote the program through Walmart .com and its Twitter and Facebook efforts.

Last year's attempt by entrepreneurial startup OraBrush to get its tongue cleaners on Walmart shelves through viral videos and Facebook ads wasn't the inspiration, Mr. Bolte said. But OraBrush's story of a company trying to take the grassroots approach even before the structure was in place, he said, "made us feel much better about trying this experiment."

Nothing prevents established Walmart vendors from trying their hand at, though small players are more likely. Walmart is offering to help scale their production to meet the demands of the $419 billion global retailer. That help could possibly include financing or helping to find contract manufacturers, Mr. Bolte said.

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