But what's really clever is how the contest uses social media as stealth customer engagement—an area where Wal-Mart hasn't been exactly brilliant in the past.
Wal-Mart is calling its "Get on the Shelf" contest an American Idol-like competition, but it's decidedly less glossy than that. The product videos already online (Wal-Mart wisely rounded up several dozen early entrants to seed the contest) trend heavily toward gadgets and food items, with video quality ranging from late-night TV commercials to strictly homemade. Wal-Mart didn't even use its own Vudu video service to host the videos—they're all on YouTube, which isn't officially connected to the contest. As a result, it really does have a grungy, social-media feel.
Wal-Mart says the three items that get the most votes by April 24 could become products on walmart.com, with the top vote-getter having a shot at being in stores, along with support for marketing and ramping up production. (The "could" is because real or virtual shelf space depends on cutting a deal with the retailer and becoming an approved vendor; according to fine print in the contest rules, if there's no deal then Wal-Mart can buy its way out of the prize by paying $12,500 to the big winner or $10,000 to either runner-up.)
It's an interesting stunt for finding new suppliers. And with Wal-Mart perpetually accused of driving small retailers out of business, it's a nice PR move to show that Wal-Mart is friendly to at least some small U.S. businesses.
But the really clever move here is in customer engagement. Even customers who really like Wal-Mart aren't likely to believe Bentonville wants to hear from them about what should go in the stores. Letting them vote on new Wal-Mart products? Very sharp (and relatively cheap) use of social to build customer loyalty. Doing that while pretending all along that this is not about customers? Nice stealthy touch.