Sonia Lawson developed the plastic Toe Spongee so people with mobility problems can wash their feet without bending over in the shower.
"There's nothing like it on the market," said the Tampa lawyer/inventor who spent a year refining six prototypes. "I think we can sell them for $19 to $24."
She's sold a handful to Tampa VA patients so far, but Tuesday she was pitching to Wal-Mart.
The world's biggest retailer staged a sold-out "How to Do Business With Wal-Mart" seminar for 140 entrepreneurs at the University of South Florida Small Business Development Center.
The retailer jetted in buyers and executives from its Bentonville, Ark., headquarters who explained how to get pre-approved to be hired as a contractor, to rent 500 storefronts in Florida supercenters or to sell products.
In the business-to-business networking scrum people peddled software, handbags, an autobiographical novel, bicycle spoke reflectors and Latina greeting cards.
"I didn't do a deal with Wal-Mart," said Cameron Barnard, who finds jobs for the developmentally disabled in Avon Park. "But I found three potential deals with other people."
The retail giant branded by critics as a death knell for small stores also had a chance to show it does plenty to nurture small business. In 2007, Wal-Mart spent $5.7-billion on products, goods and services in Florida alone. The vendors and contractors employ about 133,000 Floridians, compared with Wal-Mart's 96,000.
Since Wal-Mart started getting bad press as the nation's largest importer of Chinese goods in the 1990s, the chain labored to bolster its American-made goods selection. The company's "Buy America" program morphed into an initiative that empowers store managers to pick local products for their shelves.
They account for only a couple of billion dollars in sales, compared with the more than $13-billion in Chinese goods Wal-Mart sells annually. But it's grown to one in 10 products found in a typical store.
Wal-Mart gets enough pitches to keep a nine-person call center busy. The application process starts online. The company separates the riff-raff with requirements vendors have $2-million liability insurance, a Dun and Bradstreet rating and a product people want.
"The ultimate vote is not us but the cash register," said Excell Lafayette, director of supplier development whose staff weeds 12,000 off-the-street suitors to fewer than 1,000 for an audience with a buyer.
"We have plenty of successes if people are patient," he said. "We found a woman in Cleveland at one of these seminars who makes a blueberry cobbler. She went from one store to 183."
Vendors offer cautionary tales of becoming a Wal-Mart business partner. If your product is a hit, the chain could ramp up orders into the millions. That tempts you to borrow to expand production fast, then face the reality Wal-Mart will look for ways to sell it cheaper while you pay down debt.
Such qualms are a reason why Wal-Mart wants to never be more than 25 percent of a vendor's business.
Nonetheless, Wal-Mart never eases off the pressure to pare retail prices. I remember how proud a Tampa apparel maker was at creating a pair of men's khaki pants Wal-Mart could sell for under $10. The problem wasn't whittling the price to $9.87. The risk was whether the pants would last longer than the industry-standard 52 washings.
Wal-Mart even used the seminar to pitch goods and services at Sam's Club, which, after all, is a store for small businesses.
Jim DeVincenzo, a Wesley Chapel inventor who invested $100,000 maneuvering his version of a kitchen paper towel holder to market, compared the product-pitching experience to venture capital groups.
"Wal-Mart clearly wants more local product, and they will pay for it," he said. "This is the right way to do it."
Mark Albright can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8252.