Retail Band

Product Launch Plans & the Ultimate Retail Buyer Strategy– Julie Walker EP 57

Julie Walker: Strategies to Turn Your Retail Business Scorecard Green

Is your buyer’s scorecard green? It is important to add value to your buyer beyond the product you’re selling which will lead you to gain influence.

In this episode of the Page One Podcast, Luke Peters speaks with Julie Walker, she is a seasoned executive with 30 years of industry experience spanning brand management, shopper marketing, sales leadership, and multiunit retail operations. Before starting her own strategic firm, she was the CEO of Shopper Events and spent 24 years at Proctor& Gamble.

Listen in to learn how to validate your product and make the design stand out from the competition. You will also learn the strategy that will get you the attention of the buyer and fulfill their expectations of your business.

Key Takeaways: 

  • The importance of forecasting a product’s performance in the market rather than focusing on its distribution.
  • The importance of hiring an agency to help your business get attention from a potential buyer.
  • The major mistakes that happen in the top to top meetings and the right thing to do.
  • Learning to align and support your buyer’s business culture.

Episode Timeline:

  • [0:34] Intro:
  • [2:44] She talks about the situation with the companies that she helps during the pandemic.
  • [3:39] How she’s helping struggling companies to understand the market and accessing their capabilities.
  • [5:43] The industries that are unexpectedly doing better than it was initially anticipated.
  • [7:30] How to evaluate the context of a product when designing to stand out from similar products. 
  • [10:57] How to avoid legal problems with competitors plus validating why your product would be buyable.
  • [12:42] Learning to start with the end in mind before launching a product.
  • [15:03] How to get a buyer’s attention when you’re a small company by hiring an agency plus when to know they’ll work for you or not.
  • [17:05] How to add value beyond the product you’re selling to gain influence by going green on everything on the buyer’s scorecard.
  • [18:13] Some of the things that are in the buyer’s scorecard that as a business owner you don’t think about.
  • [19:32] The meaning of the top to top business planning and it’s relation to your business leadership.
  • [23:31] The importance of understanding where you fit in the buyer’s ecosystem to better get an idea of their expectations of you.
  • [24:28] How to fulfill the expectations of your buyer while aligning and respecting their culture.
  • [27:54] Julie advises those in retail and or planning to join the retail business.

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Announcer: Welcome to the Page 1 Podcast, a twice weekly podcast, featuring a variety of guests and thought leaders on topics ranging from channel strategies to tariffs, influencer marketing, best in class product launches and all the details about how to accelerate your eCommerce sales with the big box retailers, or what we call rCommerce. Now here’s your host, Luke Peters.

Luke Peters: Thanks for joining us on the Page 1 Podcast. I’m your host Luke Peters of Newair Appliances and Retail Band Digital Strategy Agency. We’re now in a coronavirus world and I know that’s on everyone’s mind. So I’m going to adapt all of these interviews to ensure that your listeners are getting the most out of the Page 1 Podcast. In this episode, sponsored by Retail Band, we’re going to give business owners a blueprint on their digital sales, and we’re going to speak with Julie Walker who’s an expert in Sam’s club, Walmart in store sales, and also is a consultant with other brands right now and helping them grow their sales and increase their share of the shelf. Julie’s a seasoned executive with 30 years of industry experience spanning brand management, shopper marketing, sales leadership, and multiunit retail operations.

Luke Peters: Prior to starting her own strategic consulting firm in May of 2017, she was CEO of a multinational experiential marketing agency called Shopper Events, and spent 24 years at Proctor & Gamble. She has experience across grocery, dollar, mass, and club channels and more than 20 years of experience working with Walmart and Sam’s Club. Julie, welcome to the Page 1 Podcast.

Julie Walker: Thank you.

Luke Peters: Awesome. So, Julie, I know I gave you that intro there, but go ahead and just describe briefly what you do so the audience can kind of get a better feel for what you work on day to day.

Julie Walker: As you said in 2017, I started my own consulting company, with the goal of lending the skills that I acquired over 24 years at Proctor & Gamble, and three years running a retail service program, lending up to mid sized companies to our [inaudible 00:02:14] business has stalled. They’re scaling from a single unit to a multiunit operation, or they’re trying to get into business with Sam’s and Walmart, or grow their business.

Luke Peters: Perfect. Shortly, we’re going to jump into those questions and you listeners can get more of Julie’s experience on selling into Sam’s, Walmart, what it takes to get on the shelf and stay on the shelf. But before we do that, let’s talk a little bit about coronavirus. Julie, go ahead and kind of describe how that’s impacted the companies that you help.

Julie Walker: It’s a mixed bag. We have some of the companies I’d say whose businesses are up 300%. They’re on fire. These are businesses that are in the health space or in food/beverage. Frankly, the retailers, Walmart and Sam’s themselves, their businesses are quite up as folks are stocking the pantry. We have other folks who can’t sell a thing. Can’t get their business to move at all, have stalled pipelines. And then we have some that are mixed bags, half their portfolio working, half their portfolio not, and kind of on balance, status quo.

Luke Peters: Those companies that are really struggling, how are you helping them and advising them? So if their business just really is tanked, and obviously they’re hoping for recovery as states start to open up, but that’s going to be slow, probably. Are they just having to basically cut back in all areas? It would be interesting if you had a story or an example you can share.

Julie Walker: We’re focusing on helping them pivot from their current capabilities to things that are relevant right now. And an example of that would be a company that I work with that’s in the staffing arena. As you can imagine, they do all kinds of special events, including sporting events. They were the staffing agency that supported the Super Bowl. They do golf outings, et cetera. All that stuff is dark and gone. But they have talented people on staff who can be part of solutions for in store shopping and additional cleaning that’s going on in different venues. They have software that’s actually able to track things that are happening on a variety of multiunit, multi location spaces that they’ve been able to sell as a service, that they never sold before. They used it for their own staff, and now they’re selling it. So the pivot is key. Understanding the market, and assessing your capabilities, and making a pivot.

Luke Peters: I love that advice because it’s a heck of a lot better than just kind of going in a cave and wait. Because who knows how this recovery is going to be and how fast it’s going to happen, so that’s really smart about directing them that way. When looking at stores, it is really interesting that the store sales are up. I get it, it makes logical sense. But at the same time, I went by Target. I think I drove by Target yesterday and there’s people standing out in lines outside. It’s interesting that the stores are growing, but at the same time, they’re limiting how many people can come inside of them. I just thought that’s an interesting thing. We’ve seen some of the quarterly results come out, and looking at same store sales and just overall sales, and some of them are really growing online. Walmart, for example, I think had something like 75% growth. There’s some obvious things that people are buying, they’re stocking the pantry. Is there an interesting category that one of your clients have seen growth, but maybe you didn’t expect it?

Julie Walker: I guess the one that’s funniest to me is adult beverage. It’s through the roof in retail. I believe all the drinking occasions that we probably didn’t notice are now happening at home through retail.

Luke Peters: Yeah, how funny.

Julie Walker: That surprised me. I think, in general, what we’re seeing is beauty care sales are in a slump. Initially, I was quite surprised to see just how much of a slump those were in. But now they’re coming back as people are doing a lot of the longterm maintenance, that they used to go to salons for, in home. So we’re seeing things like hair color, nail salon, pedicure, face masks, waxing, you name it. Interesting things that used to be done in salons are now happening at home.

Luke Peters: I guess you can only hold out so long, right? So after a month-

Julie Walker: Exactly. The gray hair is coming back in.

Luke Peters: That’s so funny. Well, cool. That’s great to hear those specific stories. It is interesting about adult beverage, and that’s kind of cool to hear, too, because at Newair we sell wine and beer coolers and we’ve definitely seen a good trend in those categories. And so that kind of matches what people are… They’re spending time at their house and they can’t go out, and so they’re kind of investing in that. Why don’t we kind of pivot into a lot of your strengths like I mentioned in the intro, over 20 years at Proctor & Gamble. You have so much experience in store, and really strategically in store, looking at packaging and kind of how to win in a couple of key retailers. You spent several years launching new items and new brands into various retail channels during your time at Procter & Gamble. What advice can you share with us about winning at the point of sale?

Julie Walker: I feel lucky to have had a lot of assignments and a lot of opportunities to launch items. Some I made good decisions on, some I made bad decisions on. But one thing I learned is the importance of future proofing a sale before I sell it into retail. What I mean by that is, make sure you know how the product is going to succeed. Don’t just focus on getting it into distribution, make sure you’re going to be able to meet the velocity requirements of any retailer where you’re trying to bring the item in.

Luke Peters: And how do you do that? It’s hard to forecast, right?

Julie Walker: It is hard to forecast, but I think there’s a lot that’s in our control in the launch. And one of those is designing an item from the shelf back. So you have a desire to be in distribution in a variety of locations. I believe the majority of us think that all those locations are equal and we start designing our items based on the brand, and the way in which we want it to look, and the way it looks in our conference table of our office. We don’t think about how it’s going to look in a very different context, whether that’s at a dollar store, or a club channel, or a home hardware store, or a Walmart.

Luke Peters: Julie, is that different than just the messaging or is that inclusive of the messaging? But you’re talking about even the dimensions, and the colors on the box, and just thinking of it as a billboard?

Julie Walker: Yes, I think 50% of the challenge is operational. The shelves are different. If you’re selling into club, it’s a pallet sale in many cases. It could be that you are on a shelf. It could be that your shelf dimensions are only so high. It could be that you’re going to be in the middle of the shelf and you’re going to be sandwiched with a lot of items that are different than you are. You have to stand out and make sure that you’re saying that your organic, as well as your brand name, et cetera, because of where you sit. I don’t think that we evaluate all those contexts as well as we could in designing the shape of our bottle, the color of our bottle, the way in which our packages can be low maintenance and fly off the shelf. I just call it shelf back.

Luke Peters: Maybe you can give me an example of what’s an easily overlooked mistake. But I guess what we can start with is most people, most folks that are getting products in store, they probably have some experience or they’re already selling in store. And so maybe they’re focused on call to action, or certain colors, or they tested certain calls to action, or ways to describe the product. Maybe we’ll call that the basics. Beyond that, where might they be missing out on?

Julie Walker: A big gap I see is in competitive claims. Many of the clients that I’ve worked with focus on a tagline, a selling line. The same selling line that’s often in their television advertising or their print advertising, not a claim that is really overcoming the shoppers beliefs and barriers to purchasing relative to the other options they have at the shelf.

Luke Peters: I love that. We talk about that on a website is you’re guaranteed promise, and I guess maybe that’s the same thing with a product. Are you usually advising companies to go get some R and D done to kind of have proof of those claims? Because there are certain restrictions on what you can put. Talk to us, maybe start to finish, on how a company can come up with that type of claim or think about how they can have a proven claim that they can put on their package.

Julie Walker: The first thing that I believe is critical is never put anything on your package that you can’t substantiate. There would be legal challenges that could happen from other competitors. So you have to make sure that you’ve got well-researched claims if you’re going to make any kind of competitive comparison. But from a process standpoint, first start with, why would you want someone to buy you? What would you expect them… Why would they buy you versus the other items that are there? Brainstorm all of the different things that you know about your products that are competitive in value relative to the other options. And then you can validate those with very simple and affordable research, usually between 12 and $15,000 research.

Luke Peters: Are there any companies that come to mind that are good at doing the research, or is it really product dependent?

Julie Walker: LevelFour is a little company out of Canada that does a fantastic job on claims research. I’ve worked with them on several projects.

Luke Peters: So they’re called LevelFour?

Julie Walker:

Luke Peters: Nice. All right, we’ll get that in the show notes. I really enjoy getting specific call outs because I think it’s valuable to the listeners. Really, whether it’s from digital marketing or any other resource, the best or the most trusted way to find a great company, in my opinion, is go with a trusted referral. So that’s great. We’ll have that in-

Julie Walker: As a reference, yes.

Luke Peters: That’s great. And I know so many people that can utilize that type of service, so I think that’s great. So you have a lot of depth selling into Sam’s Club. What tips can you offer brands who are trying to break into the club channel, or say Sam’s Club specifically?

Julie Walker: A couple of quick steps, but the first would be start with the end in mind. Winning distribution and clubs is a fantastic gift, but hitting the velocities and staying in distribution requires you to grow the item year after year. And the most disappointing thing I’ve ever experienced is watching someone gain distribution, but not be able to sustain it and invest a ton of money that they did not anticipate, at the front, to get to the velocities that are required. So I always say, start with the end in mind, have a three year plan to launch and grow your item, and then think about who… These are limited distribution retailers, so somebody has got to come out for you to go in. So I always say, think about, as the buyer, put yourself in their shoes, who’s going to donate their space for you to come in, and why?

Luke Peters: That’s so smart, really strategic. Tell us more about, so you started to say start with the end in mind. A Stephen Covey reference, I like that. You have to gain a certain level of velocity. Is that because in these clubs that the buyers are expecting that you’re going to have a 300% increase to get up to… Or that you’re literally going to increase every single year or you’re out of there and they’re going to find somebody else. What is the expectation on their level?

Julie Walker: Costco only carries about a thousand items. Sam’s Club has 5,000 items. They’re pretty big warehouses, and they expect tremendous productivity per item just to break even on their model, relative to what’s in there today. And when I say that, I’m talking $50 million items on an annual basis. So we’re talking big items. If you’ve got a neat idea, it’s really important that you understand what the velocity is currently, they call it red lines often, for that buyer to ensure that you’re going to be able to come in and at least hit their minimum threshold. Otherwise, they’re going to have several other items, including the incumbent items that can perform better than you.

Luke Peters: And how do you get, I know this is a question for any buyer, but talking about these clubs, I will tell you from personal experience everybody wants to work with Costco. They’re a challenge. Very hard to get their attention, very hard requirements to get in store for a bunch of reasons we can talk about. But is there a different method to getting a club buyer’s attention and how can business owners think about that?

Julie Walker: My experience in getting a buyer’s attention, if you are a small brand who’s unknown to the company, is hire someone who already has access to those buyers. There are lots of fantastic brokers and consultants out there that specialize in the club channel. They bring expertise on the requirements, the operator requirements, they can provide tremendous advice to you, but they also have trusted access to the buyers. So when they call they’re repping a portfolio of successful items and they say, “I’ve got a new item to break in.” That is by far the best way in versus trying to go it alone.

Luke Peters: Great, another question on that, because, look, we’ve all had experiences with rep agencies that worked and ones that didn’t work. I guess what I want to ask is a timeframe, but that’s going to be product dependent. But let’s say a company brings on an agency, and a CEO obviously wants to be in store in six months. But what’s a realistic timeframe when you know that, “Hey, that agency is going to get it done or they’re not going to get it done.” After a certain amount of time, one may have to move on to another agency. And I’m just curious, I know it’s going to differ from category to category, but any thoughts on that timeframe?

Julie Walker: I would say after the first meeting with the broker and you. If they can’t get you an appointment, it’s all about the appointment. If you can’t even get an appointment, and I would say there’s a lot of people who take on responsibility, take people’s money as a consultant that can’t even get the appointment. So I think the first thing to do would be have all of your fees contingent on the appointment, participate in the appointment with them, in the planning and in attending. And if they’re not willing to have you go, then they’re not really betting on you.

Luke Peters: I love that, very specific. That’s awesome, Julie. You advise a lot of brands that are looking to improve their business in retail. And we’ve been talking about Sam’s, a little bit about Costco, but what’s your biggest piece of advice that you give them?

Julie Walker: After shelf back design, and securing your sustained distribution, the key thing I tell folks to do is just build a plan to add value beyond the product you’re selling to gain influence. If you are just transactional, and you don’t have visibility often to how all the other players are doing on the shelf for that buyer, you’re always going to be in a precarious position. If you’re adding value beyond the product that you’re selling and gaining influence, you understand the market and the customer, then you have a higher likelihood of winning a tie, getting additional bets on you, broadening your distribution and support. And the first way to do that is to go green on everything on the buyer scorecard. I don’t know if people even know what the buyer scorecard is. I think ask them what’s on their scorecard and ask them where you stand on each one of the items. I think we spend too much time telling and selling and not enough time asking and listening to the buyer about where we fit, because we’re afraid of the answer.

Luke Peters: What might be a couple of those things that would be on a typical buyer scorecard that we may not actually be thinking about?

Julie Walker: Things like whether you are shorting your orders, item cuts to your order, whether you are delivering on time. So I’m going to just focus on the least glamorous side of retail, which is all the blocking and tackling to just even get on the shelf. They have an enormous scorecard that’s all focused on how you perform through their warehouse, how many days it takes to sell you, and where that stands. They’re against, like I said, their velocities. Where your margin is relative to their entire portfolio. You want to be green on everything you can be green.

Luke Peters: That’s a great piece of advice. We have that from some buyers, but not from all of them. So I think that’s something that internally, here at Newair, we can push for. I know I talk to a lot of folks and that doesn’t come up in a lot of our conversations. We’re focused on other things sometimes as business owners, but great area to start. And we always want to align ourselves with the buyers and maybe when we’re getting rejected or we’re hearing no it has something to do with that scorecard. So definitely something that we should all look into. We were talking earlier and you mentioned top to top business planning as a critical part of winning at retail. What does best in class top to top business planning look like to you? And give an example, maybe, so the audience understands what you meant by top to top.

Julie Walker: Top to top implies the top member of the retail organization. Sometimes it’s the CEO, but if it’s just a decision maker, it could be the buyer who’s the top. But the top of your company, which is often your president or CEO. The bigger your company and the broader your portfolio relates to a retailer, the more likely top to top is the heads of both companies. The smaller you are, the more important it is for you to humble yourself to the buyer and demonstrate respect to them by bringing your top executives, on an annual basis or an every other year basis, to the table to demonstrate the company’s appreciation for the business, respect of the business, and willingness to resource the buyer’s priority. It goes a long way.

Luke Peters: Got it. And that timeframe is helpful, kind of like on a yearly would be enough, assuming internally that we’re meeting with them probably a lot more often. What type of mistakes do you often see in top to top meetings?

Julie Walker: I see people bring in the top leader, but they haven’t gone green on their scorecard. And the poor president is subjected to nothing but a yelling or negotiating match because the scorecard is not yet green. Worse, the sales person wasn’t even planning to cover that topic. They brought a big strategic topic from their senior executive with no regard for the scorecard, and so both parties were blindsided. So I would say the first thing is, try to plan your top to top meeting after you’ve had a green clear scorecard so you can talk about taking the business to the next level. Or if you can’t and in you’re in trouble because you have a red scorecard, prep your senior leader to understand exactly where your gaps are, walk toward it at the front of the agenda so that the buyer doesn’t get to bring it up, and it will defuse all of their negotiating posture so they can listen to what you’re trying to accomplish. That’s the biggest mistake I see. And then the second, which is terrible also, is not following up.

Luke Peters: So a funny story, I was a part of one of those top to top meetings when our scorecard wasn’t green. I didn’t know about it. This was about a year and a half ago. It was somewhere around this city called Atlanta, you might know a big retailer over there. And that didn’t turn out to be a very good day of meetings. I learned a lot that day, let’s put it that way. It was eye opening.

Julie Walker: Terrible. As a consultant, I’ve actually been paid to do big research projects that we’re bringing in to try to deliver thought leadership to the buyer. And I sat in the lobby outside the room while the buyer and senior leaders get yelled at because they weren’t in tune with where they fit on the scorecard.

Luke Peters: It was embarrassing, but I’ll tell you what, our sales now at that company are unbelievable. And we have built the relationship. And so in a way it was good that I went and kind of saw that. In this timeframe a lot has changed.

Julie Walker: And that’s why I think sometimes having a top to top because you have trouble on the business could demonstrate that the company’s committed to fixing it is great. Just don’t be surprised. And then build a followup plan, own the followup notes out of the meeting, and follow up. I have a friend who’s a senior leader at Walmart and he said that the number one thing that separates good suppliers from great suppliers is great suppliers follow up. That’s kind of a sad statement, but the retailers are grinding business without trusting follow through.

Luke Peters: That kind of describes how all sales people win.

Julie Walker: Absolutely.

Luke Peters: Follow up is going to win with all types of sales. I thought this was really interesting because in the info sheet that I received from you, you wrote, “To whom much is given much is received.” That’s a JFK/Luke from the Bible quote, which my parents named me after. And you wrote that it also applies to a retailer’s expectations of a brand. I’d love to hear your explanation here.

Julie Walker: It’s my family motto. I say that to my boys all the time. And I believe that in retail, if you are a large contributor to the category or the buyer’s success, then they expect a lot out of you. I’ve seen this happen with big suppliers, which I have lots of experience with Proctor & Gamble as a big supplier. And I’ve seen this with small suppliers in terms of their ability to get a pass on certain expectations that are designed to improve the efficiency of the company. But they know that smaller companies don’t have the resources to support it. So I think it’s really important to understand where you fit in the buyer’s ecosystem so that you can understand exactly what kind of expectations they’re going to have of you.

Luke Peters: What might be just some practical advice or maybe some specific things of translating what those expectations into actions? What does that look like?

Julie Walker: As a large part of a buyer’s scorecard, if you happen to be blessed with a lot of distribution, you should expect that the retailer is expecting each one of those items to perform at a higher level than if they only gave you one item and they were trying you out. I think they would expect that you are delivering on all of their operational requirements, not having misses and gaps in your portfolio. If you’re larger, I think they’d expect preferential treatment on allocation. If you’re smaller, I think the difference is you might be able to negotiate your way out of paying a markdown. You might be able to negotiate your way out of paying a penalty for a miss on the operational scorecard.

Luke Peters: So interesting. I’m actually saying this seriously, it is kind of funny, but does that also mean that there’s an expectation to participate in say the company’s charity or charity golf events? Because a lot of firms, they do actually kind of put a lot into those and some of those events can be kind of expensive. Are those really important? Because there’s some relationships built at those events. Any thoughts on those?

Julie Walker: I would say yes. They take different forms at different retailers. Some it is the charity golf outing. I work with Walmart and Sam’s primarily where they don’t do that sort of thing. For them, it was their preferred marketing tools and participating in their priority marketing programs at Sam’s Club. For example, that could be the demo. It could be supporting their on line business. It could be supporting their Plus Membership program. So I do think every retailer expects large suppliers who have been blessed with lots of support to also support their key initiatives.

Luke Peters: That makes a lot of sense. I think I remember reading Made in America. I think it was a biography, or was it maybe an autobiography, by Sam Walton?

Julie Walker: Yeah, it’s a great book.

Luke Peters: It’s an amazing, amazing book. I recommend it to everybody. But I remember he talked about early on, they would have their annual event. I think they went hunting or fishing in Georgia, or something. And then they would river raft down a river. These big investors were coming in from overseas and they were kind of welcomed to that type of an event. It was kind of a funny story. Great book, highly recommend it.

Julie Walker: But I would tell you, I think each retailer takes you through some kind of gauntlet of their culture, and really respects and responds well when you proactively nod to their culture. You don’t go into Target and not talk about guests. At Walmart, you want to talk about the customer and their associates. And by respecting their culture, whatever that might be, your respect for them is translated.

Luke Peters: You’ve provided a lot of great insights here. It’s definitely going to be a podcast that folks can rewind and play back. And you shared a lot about businesses that you’ve worked with and also ones that you help. What would you say, if I can pin you down for your most practical bit of advice here, that you can give to small and midsize companies on how they can improve their retail business, especially if they’re not even in retail at the current time?

Julie Walker: If you’re not in retail, and you’re thinking about getting in retail, gain empathy for the stakeholders, immerse yourself in the consumer market, track trends and connect your brand to those. If you’re already in retail, start with the shelf back and all your design.

Luke Peters: Great, awesome. Great advice. How can listeners find more about you? Can they find you on LinkedIn, or learn more about you and your business?

Julie Walker: They can find me on LinkedIn, Julie Dunn Walker. And they can find me at

Luke Peters: That’s We’ll have all of us in the show notes. Julie, I really appreciate you coming on the Page 1 Podcast sponsored by Retail Band. And again, for companies out there, if you’re seeking to improve your digital sales, find me on LinkedIn or at and you can learn more there. Hope everybody’s enjoyed the interview today. I truly appreciate your reviews on iTunes, they mean a lot to me. I hope you join us for the next interview. Take care.

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Episode References:

Contact Julie Walker: LinkedIn

Contact Luke: luke@retailband.comLinkedIn 

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