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.

It’s been just over a year since Willy Street Co-op’s Retail Ready Lab launched to help local entrepreneurs get their products ready for retail shelves. In that time, 21 vendors have participated in the program, including the vendor whose products are on display this month, Cultivate Taste, a maker of loose-leaf tea blends from De Pere. Of those, 17 have graduated to become ongoing vendors in one or more of the co-op’s three stores.

The first year is being hailed as a great success for the program, with many lessons learned along the way, notes Megan Minnick, purchasing director for Willy Street Co-op.

For more:

Read IB’s October 2017 feature on the launch of the Retail Ready Lab.

​Watch a recent mini documentary about the program and a few of its participants.

“The Retail Ready Lab was designed to be an incubator program, to provide a good way for new businesses to feel out the retail space and learn firsthand what kind of reaction a retail audience would give their product,” Minnick explains. “It has done this really well. Though we haven't gotten as much direct customer feedback as we'd hoped for, we've gotten some, and vendors have reported to us that the opportunity to sample their products in our stores has provided them with a wealth of constructive feedback.”

Because Willy Street Co-op’s three locations have limited shelf space, an additional benefit for the co-op has been the ability to test out some small vendors that staffers weren’t sure would succeed in stores to see how shoppers react to the products before the co-op makes a commitment to carrying their products regularly. The program has also helped Willy Street stay competitive by being the first retail outlet for some exciting new local products, Minnick adds.

“The Retail Ready Lab is a rare program in today's hyper-competitive grocery market,” Minnick says. “It’s intended to serve Willy Street Co-op’s mission to support local vendors, rather than generate direct income for our business. We are very used to looking at sales and profit margin numbers to gauge our success, but with this program the question is always “Did we help this vendor along on their road to building a successful business?” If the answer is yes, then we have succeeded.”

According to Minnick, it’s been a bit of a challenge to market the program internally in stores due to shoppers’ tunnel vision when they’re running errands. “When people learn about the program for the first time — outside of their grocery shopping experience — they are almost universally excited about it, but it’s a different story when they are in the routine of grocery shopping. There’s a ton going on in our stores, and most shoppers come in intending to buy [specific] things and get on with their day.

“To get folks to stop and really engage with the Retail Ready Lab is a challenge,” continues Minnick. “We've combated this by continuing to talk about the Retail Ready Lab on multiple platforms — social media, our newsletter, in store signage, etc. — and also by really marketing the program to our staff. If staff get excited, it's really easy for that excitement to rub off on shoppers!”

Minnick says Willy Street has also also learned not to take on too much. “Some Retail Ready Lab vendors require quite a bit of time on our end to get set up and ready to go as we work with them on their packaging requirements and aesthetics, UPC codes, invoicing, and anything else they may need to start selling their products. In the beginning, we were taking on two, sometimes three vendors per month, but we’ve now reduced that to one per month. This ensures that we have the time to give the vendor as much attention as they need.”

Getting retail ready

For the majority of the Retail Ready Lab participants, selling to consumers in a store setting is a completely new endeavor, and the learning curve can be steep.

Alix Shabazz, co-founder of CocoaBean, a small, Madison-based company that makes affordable, organic self-care products for sensitive skin types, calls the Retail Ready Lab and amazing experience. This December marks CocoaBean’s second year in business, and with how competitive the cosmetic and personal care industry is, it was difficult finding resources that answered some basic questions Shabazz  and her co-founders had as young business owners trying to make their mark.

“In the Retail Ready Lab, we were able to ask Willy Street Co-op’s Buying Department questions about the retailing process without our ignorance being taken advantage of,” says Shabazz. “We were treated with as much respect as the other well-established personal care brands, while learning what was needed to bring our products to more retailers.”

As a result of the knowledge gained going through the Retail Ready Lab program, CocoaBean made investments into the types of required packing and shipping accessories that its founders would not have known were necessary, notes Shabazz. Moving forward, CocoaBean plans to use the legitimacy that it obtained from the Retail Ready Lab to approach other local and national specialized retailers.

“It was very beneficial to be able to test market our products before a large consumer audience like Willy Street Co-op’s,” explains Shabazz. “After completing the lab, we were able to better understand the needs of Madison-area residents with more disposable income than our original customer base. This has allowed us to expand our product line to all serve all skin types across the melanin spectrum, setting CocoaBean Skin Care apart from our local competitors.”

Amanda Santoro, owner of Appleton-based Little Food Co., appreciates how smooth and well-organized the Retail Ready Lab process is for new small business owners. “Upon selection, I received a detailed to-do list and [we had an] in-person meeting to prepare my launch as a Retail Ready Lab vendor. Transitioning from a farmers market booth to a retail setting can feel overwhelming. The forms provided by Willy Street simplified the process, clarified the expectations of the program, and helped me to look for ways that I could go above and beyond to make the most of this opportunity.”

A June graduate of the Retail Ready Lab, Little Food Co.’s all-natural, frozen baby food has been such a hit that it’s now being carried full-time at Willy Street North and West. A lot of the credit goes right back to Santoro, who knows how to market beyond her core audience of cute consumers.

“My primary goal for the Retail Ready Lab was to receive customer feedback,” Santoro notes. “I spent hours sampling our baby food every week in each of the stores. When no babies were around, I served up purees to customers of all ages. One day, a man in full motorcycle gear wearing leather chaps sampled Little Food Co. baby food and liked it!”

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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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