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Walmart's Women Owned program is an initiative that represents, in the company's words, "an example of Walmart's ongoing commitment to women." But in stores, the interpretation is a little different. In the words of one confused employee, "I think it's just a weird slogan."
In theory, the program sounds truly supportive of female business owners. In conjunction with Women's History Month this March, Walmart gave prominent in-store placement to products from six different women-owned businesses. Each product in the program is identifiable by a Women Owned logo created by a women-owned graphics business, which is placed on hangtags and aisle displays. There's also a dedicated section on the retailer's website that groups together a more expansive selection of women-owned products for online shoppers.
During the month of March, large displays in highly visible areas of Walmart stores—advertising space that brands usually pay top dollar for—were reserved for these women-owned businesses. Now, even though the initial month-long promotion has ended, Walmart keeps featuring the products online and in stores by prominently displaying the Women Owned logo on hangtags and small but highly visible in-aisle flags.
Walmart has committed to a five-year goal to source $20 billion in product from women-owned businesses in the US.
Alongside the product rollout, Walmart committed to a five-year goal to source $20 billion in product from women-owned businesses in the US. Additionally, the retailer promised to double the amount of sourcing from women-owned businesses in international markets.
"Empowering women and impacting women-owned businesses from around the world aligns with our overall strategy and makes sense for our customers," Walmart spokesperson Tricia Moriarty told Racked over email.
Not only does the Women Owned initiative support the businesses, but Walmart also believes that it caters to their core female shopper. "The research [that Walmart conducted] showed that a majority of female customers said they would go out of their way to buy a product from a woman-owned business," Moriarty explained. "By featuring these products with the logo we are providing more selection and choice for our customers."
The Women Owned logo itself is owned by two companies: the Women's Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC) and WEConnect. WBENC controls the certification for women-owned businesses inside the US, while WEConnect handles international business relations. Walmart has worked behind the scenes with WBENC for awhile; in 2011, Walmart launched a Global Women’s Economic Empowerment initiative and WBENC holds it accountable for delivering on its promises to work with more women-owned businesses.
However, the Women Owned initiative marks the first time that Walmart has undergone such a public, consumer-oriented representation of its work with WBENC. It's the first company to feature the Women Owned logo in its stores, but WBENC and WEConnect plan to keep partnering with other national corporations to continue promoting women-owned businesses in similar ways.
Pamela Prince-Eason, CEO and president of WBENC, told Racked that Macy's will be next to feature the logo in its stores. "If we can work with big retailers and get them to recognize this big emblem that says this product is from a women-owned business, if they do that, they'll promote it on the shelves so that consumers then recognize it," Prince-Eason explained. "And if consumers recognize it, that will drive the growth of women-owned businesses even more."
Walmart chose six product lines to promote in stores with the Women Owned logo: Milo’s Tea, Jelmar CLR Remover, HMS Mfg. Co Hefty Wastebaskets, Goldbug Inc. Carter’s Newborn Shoes, Ariela and Associates Smart & Sexy Bras, and Ziegenfelder’s Budget Saver Pops. According to a Walmart spokesperson, each store could select anywhere from two to six products to display in March and beyond.
In the three Walmarts that I visited, the Smart & Sexy bra line from Ariela and Associates was the only brand that consistently featured the Women Owned logo. Ariela Balk, CEO and president of the company, told Racked that she put the Women Owned tag on her products because research confirmed that women were more likely to buy from Women Owned businesses, but said it was hard to tell if the logo made a difference in revenue.
"Our sales are up, but it's really hard to quantify," Balk says. "Every spring, new product comes in so it's hard to say what was due to the tag and what was just due to new assortment."
In the case of Goldbug Inc. Carter's Newborn Shoes, and the HMS Mfg. Co Hefty Wastebaskets, Carter's and Hefty are not actually owned by women. The brand licenses are leased by two women-owned distributors, Goldbug, Inc. and HMS.
"Younger millennial women are looking for authenticity and for brand stories that draw them in and make them part of a community."
"Our business is very, very strong with Walmart," Katherine Gold, CEO and president of Goldbug, told Racked. "I do think that a lot of the growth we've experienced is attributed to how vocal they've been about this initiative." However, out of the three Goldbug-leased brands stocked in stores (Carter's, Oshkosh, and Garanimals), Gold said that all of the brands preferred not to have the logo placed on their products.
Walmart confirmed that Carter's and Hefty are not women-owned businesses, but didn't comment on why products from those brands were highlighted in the press release detailing the Women Owned initiative.
Marlea Clark, the SVP of marketing at Women's Marketing, a company that advises brands on how to sell products to women, says that, to a certain degree, Walmart's initiative makes sense for the customer. "We do see, in so much research, that younger millennial women are looking for authenticity and for brand stories that draw them in and make them part of a community," Clark told Racked in an email.
However, she wasn't so sure that female shoppers would be likely to make a purchase solely on a personal connection; in this case, supporting women-owned businesses. "Two factors that strongly influence millennial moms are value and social media recommendations," Clark says. "So Walmart needs to ensure prices are perceived as a good deal, and they would be well-advised to promote the campaign heavily through the social media platforms these moms love."
Walmart sent out eight tweets about the Women Owned initiative from one of its Twitter accounts, @WalmartHub, around the launch date in early March. For comparison, @WalmartHub tweeted over thirty times about another empowerment initiative, #WeSparkChange, which encouraged customers to take part in the fight against hunger. Several of Walmart's other Twitter accounts (@Walmart, @WalmartGiving, and @WalmartAction) all tweeted about #WeSparkChange as well, but none promoted the Women Owned initiative.
Walmart didn't comment on whether or not employees were trained to talk about the initiative.
It also could have been helpful if Walmart employees were informed on the initiative and able to explain it to customers who saw the logo, but none of the employees I spoke with were aware of what the logo represented. "Maybe it means that Walmart women approve," one employee guessed as we stood contemplating the "Women Owned" sign in front of a couple of jugs of CLR cleaner. "I know my grandma swears by this stuff." Walmart didn't comment on whether or not employees were trained to talk about the initiative.
The female shoppers that I spoke with agreed that value and quality were more important than anything else when making a purchase. Danielle, 23, told me that if she's already in the market to buy a candle, for example, and she saw the Women Owned logo on a candle brand, she could be swayed to buy, "but I don't know if I would go out of my way to buy the products."
Several other women echoed the idea of quality as the driving factor behind their purchases. "It really doesn't matter if it's owned by a man or a woman," Morgan, 51, told me when I cornered her in Walmart's DVD section and explained the program to her. "The quality has to be good and the price has to be right."