Walmart Is Inventing Foods in a Secret Laboratory in Arkansas
The drive to create innovative food products is meant to entice customers after Amazon’s buyout of Whole Foods.
Would you be interested in tropical fruit punch pickles, a yellow-skinned striped watermelon or birthday cake-flavored oatmeal? Walmart hopes so. Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods earlier this year had major ramifications for the grocery industry, but bigger still could be the buyout’s impact on Walmart. Unlike traditional grocers who now have to compete against Amazon in food sales, Walmart was already competing against Amazon in sales of pretty much everything else. Both brands strive to be a shopping outlet where customers can get anything – which for Walmart, for a few decades now, has included groceries. Now that Amazon has taken this major step into the grocery world as well, Walmart is looking for ways to differentiate itself – by developing unique items like Tropickles and oddly-colored watermelons.
Julia DeWitt, host of NPR’s Planet Money, was recently invited down to Walmart’s headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, which is also home to the company’s secretive Culinary and Innovation Center. There, she was privy to learn about all of the aforementioned food products that Walmart has been working on to try to separate itself from the competition and keep customers coming back to its stores. Of those items, the “Tropickle” – a bright red pickle brined in tropical fruit punch “inspired by similar pickles you might find in barbecue joints in Mississippi” that was released in July – was the most discussed product, in part because it is so distinctive and has already made it to market.
DeWitt also met Victor Verlage, an employee at the Culinary and Innovation Center tasked with developing new products. He’s the one who introduced her to the watermelon with a yellow and striped skin. But he also explained the greater importance of products like a strange looking watermelon. “When a piece of fruit or vegetable looks odd, at first, people really have to try hard to taste it,” said Verlage. “But if we put demos in the stores, and they love it, then that becomes your best friend because your kid will tell you, mommy, bring me the yellow watermelon that I love – easy to recognize.”
The battle for unique products speaks to a larger trend about the battle to sell you everything: Ironically enough, when two stores have everything you could ever want, the little things you can only get at one or the other soon become that much more important. As DeWitt points out, “it may all come down to a pickle.”