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sacbee.com

Contest will put top innovations on Walmart shelves

By Darrell Smith - dvsmith@sacbee.com
Published 12:00 am PDT Friday, March 23, 2012

Got an idea? Retail giant Wal-Mart is calling out to inventors with its new online contest called "Get On The Shelf."

And more than 4,000 nationwide, including two from the Sacramento area, already have entered the "American Idol"-style contest. All are seeking the coveted grand prize: having a new product featured online at Walmart.com and shelf space at select Walmart outlets.

The contest takes elements from the popular TV talent show and its cues from social media. Contestants make online video pitches to the public, who vote for their favorites at getontheshelf.com.

Since its launch in January, GOTS has been a hit, as products from hot sauce to headrests, baby bottles to doggie treats have been submitted.

The first round is under way, with more than a quarter million votes cast by last week, and continues through April 3. The top 10 entries from the opening round move to a final vote April 11-24 to select the top three contestants and the grand prize winner.

The idea for the contest came from Silicon Valley-based Walmart Labs, Wal-Mart's digital technology unit. Walmart Labs engineer Guha Jayachandran hatched the idea and pitched it to his bosses last December. They loved the idea, quickly giving it the green light.

"We're very happy about the level of interest we've seen. It incorporates social media into retail," Jayachandran said. "We asked, 'What are the things we can do to involve people and try to do something different?' "

The entries, Jayachandran said, "cover the full gamut. It's a great way to discover great products and it gives the public more of a voice."

Retail analyst C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America's Research Group said the Wal-Mart contest idea is a smart one on several levels.

"Anytime you can get customers involved, you already have a ready-made customer. It's pretty ingenious. People who voted for the item feel obligated to buy it because they voted for it," Beemer said. "And, it gets them to think about the retailer selling American-made products. That's a positive as well."

Roseville's Eric Fitzsimons hopes his entry is the one that makes the grade. The concept is clear in its name.

"I Employ Veterans" would use proceeds from sales of water in biodegradable bottles to create jobs for military veterans both at his enterprise and by funding job training and other education for veterans returning to civilian life.

Fitzsimons is banking on shoppers rallying around the troops for a good cause. Given the choice between similar products, he reasons, shoppers will scoop up items that provide a helping hand to returning soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines.

"If proceeds go to vets for vets, shoppers will feel more comfortable buying it," he said.

The idea grew out of his job with a Florida-based non-profit that works with wounded veterans. He said he was struck by the high unemployment rate of returning veterans and their struggles to transition into the civilian workforce.

"It's just me doing this. I'm trying to create careers with salaried positions," Fitzsimons said. "It's had its ups and downs, but this has been the most exciting thing business-wise in my life."

For Sacramento retiree and local inventor Pete Pahio, getting his digital sports trainer from garage to market has been 15 years in the making, tweaked by redesigns, teased by near-misses, stalled by recession.

The device, dubbed the AccraSpeed Sports Trainer, was designed for golfers, but can also be used by baseball and tennis players. The digital trainer is worn like a wristwatch and emits a long electronic chirp when a swing or throw is mechanically sound and short, choppy blasts when technique misses the mark.

Financed mainly by "savings, paychecks and bartering," Pahio said turning idea into item has been hard work.

"It's been a long paddle down a dry river with every big log you can imagine."

And yet, here he is, his project vying for a spot in Walmart stores with a chance to get on the shelf.

"Whether it's Walmart or not," Pahio said, "this is as close to a success story as you can get."


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