Retail Royalty: Vidalia company to begin selling product in Walmart stores
Published 12:00 am Sunday, July 9, 2017
by DAVID HAMILTON
The Natchez Democrat
NATCHEZ — Last month, Southern Designs and Gifts CEO Tance Hughes and Sales Coordinator Josh Welch, both in their mid-20s, visited Walmart headquarters in Bentonville, Ark. Their goal: get Southern Designs’ products on the retail giant’s shelves.
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Their ambition paid off.
Based in Vidalia, Southern Designs is a manufacturing company that makes decorative products, such as signs, out of steel, wood and acrylics. Now, those Vidalia-made products will be stocked on Walmart’s shelves.
“Walmart was always the place that you’d think, ‘That’s the king of retail,’” Hughes said.
Southern Designs had already been selling products on the sites of numerous retailers, including Amazon, Zulily.com, HomeDepot.com and GroupOn. The Vidalia company was also selling items on the WalMart.com Marketplace, the retailer’s site that allows third-party vendors to sell goods.
That situation, Hughes said, was less than ideal.
“They’re just taking a commission, you’re drop shipping stuff and you’re lost in this field of a million different vendors,” Hughes said.
The way to avoid getting lost in an ocean of vendors was to actually get products in Walmart stores.
The process began a couple months ago when Hughes began researching how to become a Walmart vendor. He discovered the retailer was about to host its fourth ever Walmart Open Call event June 28, where manufacturers from all over the country would come pitch their products.
After talking it over, Hughes and Welch applied to attend the event.
The two sent in some samples of Southern Designs’ products, and before they knew it, they received an invite to the Walmart Corporate offices in Bentonville.
Hughes and Welch spent the next month preparing, spending one to two hours a day planning their pitch.
“We just (wanted to) try to show them that we had our processes in line, we had our costs in line (and) that we were prepared to do business with Walmart,” Hughes said.
“So many people, you want to do business with Walmart, but being prepared for that is a whole different thing.
“They’re a big animal to work with.”
After a month’s worth of research and preparation, Hughes and Welch headed to Bentonville, along with approximately 500 other companies aiming to get their products on the shelves.
The two entered their 2 p.m. meeting with not one, but four buyers to whom they had to pitch their goods.
“I figured the meeting would be intimidating, especially when I thought we were going to meet with one buyer and then four walked in, and it was just the two of us,” Welch said.
But surprisingly, the two said, the meeting and the event seemed very casual.
“Once we started talking and it got going, it was like a normal conversation … it wasn’t intimidating at all,” Welch said.
The two found the corporate offices to be quaint — at least for a company valued at more than $200 billion.
“It’s not what you would expect,” Hughes said. “I mean, their office is like their original distribution center; it’s like a big metal building, it’s very low key, it’s not fancy. I mean it’s nice, it’s clean and professional, but they don’t go over the top.
“They treat it like one of their stores. They are efficient; they have what’s necessary.”
Both Hughes and Welch said their experience that day did not match their preconceived notion of the retail giant based on what they had heard from other vendors.
“You kind of hear horror stories about working with Walmart, (but) they were just really nice and accommodating and willing to work with you. It wasn’t this big, mean, bully type of situation that a lot of people have heard about before.”
When it was all said and done, the buyers at the meeting were impressed, and Southern Designs officially became an authorized vendor.
The news came at a time when the company had already been experiencing “explosive growth,” Hughes said.
In the past year and a half, the company has more than doubled in size. Since the end of 2015, Hughes said Southern Designs has grown from 12 employees to 30, practically all of which are Miss-Lou natives.
Southern Designs also literally doubled in size this year, opening a new 15,000 square-foot building in April that gave the company an approximately 30,000 square-foot joint facility that doubles as the main office and production center.
But the Walmart move could mean even more growth.
“I think it could be huge if it really took off like we think it can,” Welch said. “If we’re getting orders to go in 50 stores, or whatever the case may be … It could cause a lot of changes around here — good changes.”
While the company currently runs two 8-hour production shifts, Hughes said he could see ramping up to three shifts in the near future. He said that would create four new jobs within the company immediately and could eventually create as many as 10 jobs total.
“If we’re able to make five jobs out of this, that’s a good thing for an area like this because there’s just not much going on,” Hughes said.
“That’s something that I get excited about because this is home, and we have family here. Especially in a smaller town, it’s a larger impact than (with) a bigger city.”
Though Hughes anticipates growth, he said Southern Designs would be careful to manage that growth strategically.
Walmart has thousands of stores nationwide, and Hughes said supplying to all of them simultaneously is just not feasible.
“If they give us an order, it’s not going to be for all their stores at once,” Hughes said. “It’s going to be, ‘Hey, we want this for 100 stores,’ or ‘500 stores.’”
Regardless, Welch said having Walmart sell Southern Designs’ products “validates” the work of the two young Vidalia businessmen and their burgeoning company.