Supplier education outlets expand reach

story by Kim Souza
ksouza@thecitywire.com

The supplier education business centered around commerce with Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has somewhat become a cottage industry of its own across Benton County with export potential.

It seems suppliers of all sizes both need and support ongoing education with respect to the constantly changing world of retail commerce and the No. player in that market – Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

Doing Business in Bentonville was formed in 2004 by four local investors including Cameron Smith of Cameron Smith & Associates, and Jim Shankle. The business focuses on getting Wal-Mart insiders and other top retail experts onstage once a month to discuss key trends and organization developments inside Wal-Mart’s complex business units.

Steering Committee member Scott Winchester says the monthly breakfast speaker series conducted by DBB is consistently well-attended. He said suppliers generally like the program because they can leave the event with actionable information relevant to their business.

“It’s tough to get individual access to many of the Wal-Mart and other top retail executives because they are very busy and travel extensively. So when they agree to speak at DBB, the supplier community turns out in big numbers,” Winchester said at Wednesday’s (Oct. 16) breakfast.

Nancy Woods, executive director for DBB, says the organization also offers special events and workshops for suppliers as needed.

“We average about seven special events a year, which are by invitation only,” Woods said.

Woods joined the organization as executive director four years ago and says in that time it has resonated well with suppliers as the topics discussed are timely and the speakers include local retail insiders and experts from outside the region.

Smith said the need for supplier education goes beyond Northwest Arkansas and he is taking the DBB business model to other supplier clusters located in Minneapolis and Issaquah, Wash. – the home bases for Target and Costco.

Supplier education is at the core of 8th & Walton’s business model. The Bentonville-based company was co-founded by Matt Fifer and Nancy Woods in 2006. It quickly became the go-to place for suppliers to get training and insight on the core business fundamentals needed to place product on Wal-Mart shelves.

Today 8th & Walton has created about 25 jobs around four key education platforms they run, according to Fifer. He said last year the company was restructured, Woods exited and two other partners came aboard.

The company offers some 80 courses from basic fundamentals of retailing, training in Retail Link – the software database used by Wal-Mart Stores; shopper insights and category management and more recently “Bricks and Klicks – strategies to help suppliers market directly to Walmart.com and Sams.com.

Fifer said 8th & Walton has grown to expand its reach and in the past year taking the classes to other areas such as the garment district in New York City. He said getting on the shelf at Wal-Mart is one thing, but staying there is another matter entirely, and the need for more education continues to evolve.

NorthWest Arkansas Community College is also a core supplier educator in the region, according to both Woods and Smith.

Renee Campbell is the director of Retail & Supplier Education at NWACC. She spent more than a decade calling on Wal-Mart when she worked in the supplier community.

“We offer three different certificate programs for those who want to purse work in the supplier community. Our Certified Retail Analyst Program was introduced by Lee Scott 12 years ago and since then 604 graduates have come through,” Campbell said..

She said it’s only course taught in the country that provides direct experience with Retail Link through Wal-Mart’s portal.

The average age of the students enrolled NWACC’s supplier courses is 36. She said nearly all of them are degreed and many are in the midst of a career change.

“We push these students to go way beyond just navigating the software. They must be able to analyze the data they pull and provide sales insight. We are just training them for an entry level job, we are helping them launch a new career,” Campbell said.

This last year she introduced another program using “Prospace” which teaches shelf management and space planning – critical skill sets for the supplier sales force.

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This fall Campbell also introduced a “Category Management” certificate which involves three classes with skills needed by analysts. Campbell said the graduates have good chances to secure jobs in the supplier community but the criteria for getting that work has increased substantially in the past decade.

“A decade ago if you can run Excel and had a sales mentality you could land an entry level job, because there was a lot of low hanging fruit. If I sold one product into the store it could make my year. But that’s not the case anymore as the retail space has become incredible competitive and other players like Target and Kroger have become more strategic as well.”

Smith said the programs at NWACC are top notch as they give students a healthy dose of real world experience.

Campbell said the courses cost $530 each and the college does profit from them after expenses.

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