Feeding Walmart

| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

RICHARD GONZALES HAS ON his shopping list many of the same items as consumers making their weekly trips to the supermarket: apples, cherries, potatoes, onions.

The difference is in the quantities being purchased. Consumers are looking to fill a grocery cart. Gonzales is hoping to fill truck trailers and railroad freight cars.

And while those consumers want to feed hungry mouths around the family dinner table, Gonzales hopes to satisfy the voracious appetite of Walmart, the nation’s biggest retailer.

Gonzales is a senior director of global food sourcing for Walmart and head of its Yakima Valley buying office, which buys Northwest fruits and vegetables directly from growers and packing houses in the region.

Walmart buys a lot of Northwest produce, including 400 million pounds of tree fruit from Washington producers in the past year, the company says, as well as 15 to 20 million pounds of potatoes and 80 million pounds of onions. Between 70 and 75 percent of the apples and cherries Walmart sells across the country comes from Washington.

It wants to buy even more and make more of those purchases directly, rather than through consolidators or brokers. Established in 2009, the buying office has grown from one employee to 10.

In part, the move reflects Walmart’s need to fill the shelves of its growing network of grocery stores, including in Washington where it was a relative latecomer to food retailing. The company opened three stores—in Bellevue, Lynnwood and Spokane Valley—in October 2012 alone, bringing its total to 58. It has plans for more, including a new Tacoma location, possibly opening in 2013.

But Walmart also believes there may be some competitive advantages to running a direct-buying operation. “A lot of our job is making sure we have product on the shelf,” Gonzales says. “Having that communication with the grower allows us the opportunity to make sure we’re giving the customer the best product at the best price and making sure it’s regionally relevant.”

What Walmart gets, he adds, is real-time information about what’s going on with the crops it plans to market to customers. What does production look like this year? What constraints and issues do growers face? What new varieties are growers planting and harvesting that might do well in stores? “That [information] doesn’t come when you meet with salespeople on a quarterly basis,” he says. “It comes when you’re out in the field on a weekly basis, developing these relationships.”

Scott McDougall, co-president of Wenatchee-based McDougall & Sons and general manager of the company’s orchard operations, says getting such information is important to retailers because of the change in Washington’s apple industry during the past decade, from when most of the state’s output was in red or golden delicious. “It’s more important that they be out here and get a little more familiar with all the varieties that are out there,” he notes. Gonzales adds that Walmart can also use its volumes of data about customer purchasing patterns to match varietal flavor profiles with those regions where they’re likely to do well.

What growers get is access to Walmart’s vaunted distribution network, which includes a major center in Grandview, just minutes from many of those growers and packing houses the company deals with (although Walmart also buys from ag producers west of the Cascades, too). It also gets a customer buying in quantities.

“We’re almost a hedge for a lot of growers doing business with us because they know they’re going to get paid, which is a big part of doing business. They get paid timely by us, they have a certain amount of business that’s sold at a sustainable price for them and they’re not subject to the whims of the market,” Gonzales explains. “The growers like the fact they can move a lot of product with us. We need them as much as they need us.”

While Walmart has a reputation of being tough on price negotiation withs vendors and suppliers, Gonzales says, “We tend to pay what we have to to make sure we have product in our store. Walmart pays a fair price; I would challenge you to find someone who says we don’t pay a fair price who’s doing business with us.”

McDougall, whose company packs about 4 million boxes of apples and pears a year, likes the direct-sales model between retailer and marketing representative (McDougall & Sons owns a portion of Columbia Marketing International, a fruit packer and shipper).

“I don’t see any downside,” he says. “It’s all been positive from the standpoint of having somebody closer and having people come to look. ... They’re stringent on their quality but their sales mechanism’s a lot better” than the older model. “We know that if we can put quality in the box,” the grower will get a good price for the product.

Being as big in the agriculture business as Walmart is in retailing is not an essential for supplying the company. Gonzales says his office deals with growers ranging in size from as few as 15 acres to operations with thousands of acres. What is required is compliance with food-safety rules and Walmart’s internal sourcing requirements.

But with consolidation reducing the number of retailers (while increasing their size), the trend is having an effect on the producer side as well, notes Desmond O’Rourke, a veteran Northwest agricultural economist and publisher of World Apple Review.

“Large operators like Walmart and Kroger need large volumes of fruit every day of the year,” he says. “Price is important, but not being out of stock is just as important. The best way to ensure security of supplies is to deal with the big, integrated grower-packer-marketers. It is too risky trying to buy the volume of the desired varieties from many small growers.”

Having an office in the growing regions isn’t unique to Walmart, which has similar offices in California and Florida. McDougall notes that Kroger, which owns QFC and Fred Meyer, has had such an office in the state. Topco Inc., a Chicago company representing multiple retailers, also has a Yakima buying office.

“The largest retailers have had offices in producing regions like Yakima on a fairly erratic basis,” O’Rourke says. “When they are doing a large volume of buying, they like to have personal relationships with the major shippers. Those buying offices tend to come and go as retailers expand or contract, as the philosophies at central purchasing change, and as fads in use of telephone or internet buying come and go.”

Retailers such as Walmart like local buying offices “to enhance their ‘buy local’ credentials or to cut out the middlemen,” O’Rourke adds. That latter goal hasn’t worked out quite as planned, he notes, since “apples have more frequently been in short supply than not, so Walmart has been unable to apply much leverage on suppliers. In addition, most Washington apples now are controlled by integrated grower-packer-marketers like Rainier or Stemilt, so the distinction between growers and middlemen [like packers and marketers] has become academic.”

Whatever the track record of direct-buying offices, Walmart’s venture in the Yakima Valley will be closely watched by everyone in the business, from growers to competing retailers and even to consumers paying attention to what’s in the produce section of their local stores.

Walmart has proven to be hugely influential not only for its size, but also for its growth, its buying and pricing policies and its logistical capabilities, so the mere fact that it’s Walmart doing it will prompt others to consider whether there is merit to the effort.

Gonzales believes there is. “We’re in touch with what’s happening on the growing side, and having that connection allows us to have a deeper understanding of what the growers go through as well as what we can do for our customer,” he says. “Obviously, we want that to translate into some sort of benefit.”

OfferUp's Mobile Marketplace

OfferUp's Mobile Marketplace

Building a better Craigslist: OfferUp quietly makes its move.
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 
OfferUp cofounders Nick Huzar, left, and Arean Van Veelen.
 
We all know the mother of invention. Nick Huzar’s necessity was finding a way to clear out a room for his soon-to-arrive baby girl.
 
“My wife and I were at a spot where we wanted to have kids and when she said she was expecting, I kind of went into dad mode,” Huzar explains. “I remember standing in the doorway of this room, which was about to be my daughter’s room. It was just full of stuff and I’m thinking, ‘There’s got to be a better way to sell this stuff.’ It would take forever to sell it through existing channels.”
 
Having moved on from his previous startup — Konnects, a social media platform for magazines and newspapers — Huzar was ready for his next challenge. Still, he confesses, “I had no plans on doing another startup right away. It’s a lot of work.”
 
But the idea of streamlining the buying and selling process wouldn’t go away. “I was looking at my phone and just kept thinking, ‘Why can’t buying and selling be as simple as taking and sharing a photo?’” he says. “That was the spark for OfferUp.”
 
OfferUp is a Bellevue company that runs a mobile platform for buyers and sellers. Looking for a pair of size 12 Nike Richard Sherman trainers worn “only a few times”? In mid-March, Joey in Kent was offering them up for $150. Stephen in Renton offered up a 2014 Tesla Models S with 12,141 miles on the odometer for $76,000. Martin in Federal Way offered up a pogo stick “in good working condition” for $30.
 
Huzar says he and cofounder Arean Van Veelen did a lot of homework before launching. They talked with friends, family and around 100 local merchants. 
"There's a long history of companies that tried to compete in this space and failed,” says Huzar. “Keep in mind this was 2011 and the economy wasn’t that strong, so they gave me a lot of time. I learned a lot about what they do and how they promote their stores.”
 
Huzar’s research led him to distinguish his business from Craigslist by focusing on smartphones. Virtually everyone has a smartphone on his or her person most of the time. This lessens the “friction” involved in buying and selling things.
 
“Why do we have underutilized assets at all around us?” Huzar asks rhetorically. “Because there’s a ton of friction in the process. We look at those golf clubs sitting there, and we maybe move them out to the garage and then eventually they end up in the junkyard or somewhere else.”
 
Huzar realized smartphones offer an easy point-and-click way to photograph unwanted goods and offer them for sale on the spot. A computer-based option like Craigslist, which does not have its own app, requires you to photograph the product, transfer the picture to your computer, sign in to your account and finally post the item for sale.
 
OfferUp was designed from the beginning to be a mobile app. Available for iOS and Android, the app reads a user’s location and offers tiled photos of items for sale in the local area. Users can set the app to show items within a specified range of miles and to put either the newest items or the closest items at the top of the display. Buyers click a button to make an offer or to send questions to the seller. For those wishing to sell items, it’s as simple as snapping a photo and keying in a price. “You can easily post an item and offer up in less than 30 seconds,” says Huzar.
 
Huzar also realized that, especially for internet and mobile apps, trust and safety were critical issues. So Huzar’s team decided it was important to have a real-time presence in the OfferUp app. “In the chat system we are adding more tips,” says Huzar. “If we see things that we think are questionable, we are happy to engage. We are very proactive in that.” 
 
Even with the best of application design and management processes, of course, getting a marketplace up and running is a lot different from simply offering a product. There needs to be a critical mass of buyers and sellers. Building that critical mass was the next major challenge for Huzar and his team, which officially launched with a total of four employees, including the two founders.
 
“There are a lot of challenges in getting the gears moving,” says Huzar. He started by having his friends and family try the new platform.  But that wasn’t enough, so Huzar explored an array of marketing strategies.
 
“There were a lot of failed things for sure, a lot of experiments that didn’t bear a lot of fruit,” he says. “But we persisted to figure out the right mix.”
 
While not willing to give details about what the “right mix” turned out to be, Huzar says that his team tried pretty much everything. “Any way you could try to target an audience, we tried,” he says. “We even had a booth at the Bite of Seattle. We did experiments handing out fliers. We did print. We did digital. We did everything except skywriting.”
 
While offerup is still privately held and has flown pretty much under the radar of media coverage, its growth — at least as measured in terms of transactions and employees — has been somewhere between “strong” and “spectacular.”
 
Huzar says OfferUp has been downloaded 18 million times. It recorded $3.9 billion worth of transactions in 2015. And from a staff of four in 2011, it has grown to nearly 80 today. The staff has more than doubled in just the past year. “It’s hard to speculate where we will end the year,” says Huzar, “but we are hiring aggressively.”
 
Those numbers are impressive, but the company has yet to generate revenue. The service is currently offered free to buyers and sellers and there is no advertising on the site. The business also has plenty of competitors offering many of the same mobile-based conveniences. They include 5miles, an app developed in China that has its U.S. headquarters in Dallas and has already raised $50 million after just one year in operation. While far younger than OfferUp, 5miles, which places a strong emphasis on local service, already has six million downloads and $2 billion in transactions. It also operates in many international markets, including London, Manila, Mexico City and Sydney. Spain-based Wallapop is another company with a global footprint, and then there are niche players such as Canada’s VarageSale, which focuses on providing a safe market for moms, and Poshmark, which focuses on fashion.
 
Craigslist remains king of the hill, with 45 million unique visitors in January alone. But the company has done little in recent years to improve the site and its unique visitor number is actually down 12 percent from a year ago, according to Millward Brown Digital’s compete.com website. 
OfferUp, meanwhile, has raised $93 million in venture capital and keeps finding new ways to grow. “We don’t spend a lot of time worrying about our competition,” adds Huzar. “We are singularly focused on creating the best possible experience for our users, and our traction in the market reflects that.”  
 
The venture capital community, which reportedly values OfferUp at up to $1 billion, certainly seems to believe. “It’s obviously a little scary — big valuation, no monetization,” Josh Breinlinger, managing director of Jackson Square Ventures, told GeekWire. “It’s easy to throw up the bubble flag.” But Breinlinger insists OfferUp is no bubble: “We own all of the usage, we own billions and billions of dollars of transactions. We can monetize that.”
Huzar feels the same way. “There are many different monetization initiatives we’re exploring,” he says, though he declined to be specific about those initiatives or when the company plans to implement any of them. “We feel like we’re still in the first inning as a company. We just want to make sure when we roll out things that they really add a lot of value.”