A look at Wal-Mart's food lab, aimed at developing new items

NEW YORK, N.Y. – Wal-Mart opened a 12,000-square-foot culinary and innovation centre at its headquarters in June as a place where the nation’s largest food retailer can work with major suppliers to come up with new food ideas, and develop ideas on its own to bolster its store-brand selection.

Here’s a peek at the food lab:

WHAT IT IS: The centre has 10 test kitchens including a studio-style chef’s kitchen and replicas of the bakery and deli kitchens found in most of its stores. It has stoves, ovens and microwaves so the staff can cook the same ways customers do at home. There’s also a sensory lab where Wal-Mart can collect feedback from customers and employees, who answer questions about the texture, saltiness or sweetness of a food or beverage. The facility follows a similar lab at the company’s Sam’s Club headquarters, which opened a few years ago.

WHY IT MATTERS: Wal-Mart derives 56 per cent of its total sales from food and other grocery items. The company also accounts for about 25 per cent of the overall U.S. grocery business. Since customers might shop for food several times a week, it’s critical to get food items right to build loyalty. In the past, Wal-Mart had tested products at kitchens throughout its headquarters, but that effort was limited and the feedback it provided was fairly general. Now, Wal-Mart gets specific feedback from customers that it can share with suppliers to help decide if an item is ready or needs changes. That collaboration saves money and cuts several months off a product launch, which can last a year from idea to an item landing on store shelves.

WHAT’S NEXT: Wal-Mart is testing frozen stuffed doughnut bites as well as new flavours for its Clear American Ice store brand sparkling water and Paleo meals that are vacuum-packed. The Clear American Ice pineapple-orange flavour arrives in stores in September. The Paleo meals and the doughnut bites will be in the stores in October.