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Ready for retail primetime players

One year in, Willy Street Co-op’s Retail Ready Lab continues to give new businesses a chance to shine on store shelves before a consumer audience.

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As a featured vendor in the Retail Ready Lab, Santoro received weekly sales data that detailed the exact quantities of each SKU that sold, broken down by store location. In addition to the valuable in-person feedback she received during product sampling, she also received written feedback from the Retail Ready Lab evaluation forms. “This information was incredibly helpful and exactly what I was looking for. As a result of the feedback, I’ve made adjustments to my product display and gained further understanding of my targeted customers wants and needs.”

In no small part because of her experience with the Retail Ready Lab, Santoro is debuting a new Little Food Co. location in Kaukauna in November, billed as Wisconsin’s first gluten-free, allergen-free, organic baby food commercial facility. “We look forward to building upon the foundation we received at Retail Ready Lab as we grow and scale the Little Food Co. throughout Wisconsin and beyond.”

The launch of the Retail Ready Lab last fall was fortuitously timed for Juli McGuire of Two Onion Farm in Belmont.

“It was a wonderful coincidence that Retail Ready Lab just started when I was ready to launch our new farm products, Juli's Organic Applesauce and Juli's Organic Apple Butter,” explains McGuire. “I applied through the co-op’s website in October 2017, Megan Minnick contacted me shortly after, we met, and my products were on display in December 2017 in all three stores. I received valuable feedback from the co-op as well as shoppers about packaging, labeling, and pricing. Doing in-store demos also reinforced that I had a good product — I got very positive feedback on the taste!”

McGuire had always heard that it was difficult to get into a grocery store with your product if you’re a small vendor, and prior to the Retail Ready Lab she didn't have any previous experience working with any grocers and she didn’t know the industry very well. “Retail Ready Lab was the perfect opportunity for me to test the waters. I was very excited to see my jars displayed prominently at the co-op, and tell my story to the shoppers! During the demos, I was also able to learn who my products appeal to the most. They gave me the chance to practice my pitch, and learn how to best convey what is unique about my applesauce and apple butter.

The experience also taught her that getting her own barcode is a must if she wanted to sell her products in a grocery store.  

Becoming a co-op vendor also emboldened me to apply for a federal grant for small producers last winter,” says McGuire. “To my great delight, my grant proposal got funding this summer. I am currently working with a graphic designer, a professional photographer, and a web designer to update my labels, create new promotional materials, and design a new website.”

Ready for more

Willy Street’s Minnick notes the co-op looks at a variety of criteria when deciding whether to give a vendor a permanent spot on its shelves, including sales data, customer and staff feedback, and their experience working with the vendor.

Retail Ready’s full list of graduates, all Wisconsin-based, includes:

  • Nami Chips — Vegan soul-food meal in a chip, Viroqua
  • Corina Rogers — Author of the children's book Backwards Dog, Waunakee
  • Cress Spring Body Care — All-natural face and body creams, Blue Mounds
  • Rally Energy — Caffeinated mints, Madison
  • Truli Julie — Fresh-baked biscotti, Madison
  • Two Onion Farm — Vegetable and apple farmer producing apple butter and applesauce from her own apples, Belmont
  • A Natural Essential — Lip balm and healing balms, Cottage Grove
  • CocoaBean — All-natural, handmade skincare products, Madison
  • SunGarden Greenhouse — Nonprofit hydroponic greenhouse providing opportunities for differently-abled people in Lancaster, Wisconsin. For the Retail Ready Lab, we tried selling fresh turmeric plants as houseplants for folks to harvest at home, but the plants did not work for a number of reasons. During our conversation, we realized that SunGarden could provide us with another product that we were looking for — fresh hydroponic basil through the winter. The basil, as well as fresh turmeric root, are now on our shelves.
  • Mango Man Cooks — Red and green salsas, Madison
  • Rosey Skincare — Lotions and soaps made with homegrown herbs and maple syrup, Columbus
  • Cultivating the Commons — These locally grown vegetable seeds were on the Retail Ready Labshelves in the spring, and plans are to bring them back next planting season, Jefferson
  • Little Food Co. — Fresh, frozen baby food using locally sourced and organic ingredients, Appleton
  • Burgie’s Berry Farm — Aronia berry juice, Rubicon
  • Unani Herbal — Herbal honey blends, Janesville
  • Avrom Farm — Fresh, gourmet oyster mushrooms, including blue, gold, Italian, and pink, Ripon
  • Gardens of Grace — Soaked and sprouted cereals, nut mixes, and nut butters, Dousman

According to Minnick, the program is far from done opening doors for new small businesses. “Because things get so hectic during the holiday months, we are planning to take a short hiatus from the Retail Ready Lab in November and December. [But] we’re already working with our January vendor, a local Madison entrepreneur who is developing a locally sourced frozen entree. The Retail Ready Lab will provide a great place for her to test her recipes, packaging, and pricing on a retail audience.”

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