Walmart Holds 'Idol'-Style Contest For Small Businesses


Zombie repellant might not be something you expect to find on the shelf at Walmart. Or, for that matter, puppy shoes.

Pugz Shoes, booties for dogs, are one novel entry of more than 500 competitors in Walmart's Get on the Shelf contest. Only three winners will be added to Walmart's product base.

But a public relations-savvy contest that the nation's largest retailer announced last week could result in one of these off-beat products landing on Walmart shelves before year's end.

For Walmart, it's all about garnering publicity and social-media hits. But for the winner of the contest, it's a chance to go from a virtual unknown to a distinguished product sold with roughly 150,000 others at more than 3,800 Walmart stores nationally.

"Their shelf base is probably one of the most rare and precious items in the world," Golden Gate University consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow says.

Online contests by familiar brands continue to pick up social-media steam. Baskin-Robbins has sponsored contests to let folks create ice cream flavors. Mountain Dew has involved consumers in creating soft-drink flavors. Now, Walmart's getting into the action.

Walmart dubbed its contest the "Get on the Shelf" program — an American Idol-style competition for small businesses. Two rounds of online voting will determine three winners, all of which will be sold online, with the grand prize winner gaining a spot in select stores.

As on the reality show, it's the contest's oddities that often grab public attention. Among the more unusual submissions:

"Uggs" for dogs? Pugz Shoes — boots for puppies that are stylishly similar to Uggs — are designed to keep your pooch's paws warm. With a faux leather exterior and a faux wool lining, they're practical and fashionable — because dogs are people, too, right? (Four shoes — $19.99)

Zombie repellant. Miss Stephanie's Potions is a line of scented sprays and body washes for children afraid of monsters hiding in the closet. It includes a range of products to ease kids' night frights, such as zombie-repelling sprays and fairy-attracting scents. (4-ounce spray — $9.99; 8-ounce bubble bath — $9.99)

IPad pillow. EPillow, a lap pillow for tablets, allows users to get cozy with their electronics. ($29.95)

Toilet seat backrest. The Toilet Comforter cushions your back during long thinking sessions on the porcelain throne. Grab a magazine — you might not want to get up. ($25.95)

"It's like American Idol," Yarrow says. "The first round is really entertaining because there are so many duds, and the duds themselves are funny and engaging." And, she notes, they can generate buzz.

Originality is the key to gaining retail space, says Chad Brewer, president of Hugs Pet Products, which makes Pugz Shoes.

"If you don't have something that's really different — that's going to stand out — you're not going to get that shelf space," Brewer says.

The national exposure could provide a much-needed boost for small businesses, several contestants say.

"We're still not in the black yet, but we're literally only a few thousand (dollars) from it," ePillow creator Renee Anderson says.

With more than 800 video entries already, the competition is tight, but New England Consulting Group founder and CEO Gary Stibel says just because products don't make the final cut does not mean they have lost entirely. Any publicity can generate sales, he says.

Giving shoppers a say in the company's offerings is crucial to connecting with them, says Chris Bolte, vice president of @WalmartLabs— the social-media and e-commerce team that created the contest.

"You always want to stay closely tuned to what your customers are looking for," Bolte says. "It's really about getting products on the shelves that we haven't seen."

Then there's just one minor issue: What aisle at Walmart stocks the zombie repellant?