story by Jamie Smith
Most Walmart suppliers probably measure their bottom line in regards to profit margins and the number of SKUs (products) available in the stores. For Humankind Water, the measurement of success is in terms of “people years” of water. In other words, the number of people served fresh drinking water times the number of years the well or filter used to provide that water is conservatively estimated to last.
Since winning the first “Get on the Shelf” contest at Walmart.com in 2012, Humankind Water has been able to exponentially increase its ability to provide fresh, clean water for people in countries including Haiti, Malawi, Uganda and India. To date, they’ve developed more than 40 wells and filters in those countries, said TJ Foltz, president and CEO.
Philadelphia-based Humankind Water, which has a for-profit arm that sells water and a nonprofit foundation that accepts donations, "exists (solely) to raise money and awareness to help wipe out the world's drinking water crisis," according to the company’s website.
At first glance this company looks more like a venture Walmart’s Foundation would support than a product supplier. But this business model leverages Wal-Mart’s scale with the consumer’s desire to help others and it works, according to company execs.
Foltz, a youth minister and public speaker, left his job at the American branch of the Bible-education organization Scripture Union to work full-time on his water project in the fall of 2012.
GETTING ON THE SHELF
“It's everything,” Foltz said of how winning the contest affected their overall sales and ability to serve others. “You have to understand we had only gotten the first bottles two months before the contest was announced. We basically tabled our entire 5-year marketing plan knowing that winning the contest would get us the notoriety that would put us on the map.”
The actual profit margin varies on the retailer where the products are sold and the total effect of those dollars on the ability to provide fresh water also varies on the country’s sustainability structures already in place. “There are big variables in how much it costs to dig a well, install a filter, put up a rain catchment system. Our whole point in putting the promise on the bottle that we do —1 bottle=clean H2O for 1 person for 1 year — is predicated on knowing how ridiculously cheap it is to provide clean drinking water,” Foltz said. “If we find the right large population in the right country with the right sustainability structures in place, we can get clean drinking water to people for less than 25 cents per year. It's mind boggling.”
Continuing, he noted” “When you compare the enormity of the problem and the relative ease and low expense of providing the solution…you'd have to say, as I often do: ‘Water is the lowest hanging fruit on philanthropy's tree.’”
Ravi Jariwala, Walmart.com spokesman, said the Get on the Shelf program promises the winner the ability to have their products on Walmart.com and the opportunity to meet with buyers with the hope they might also become in-store suppliers. For Humankind Water, it was not feasible to sell the product online so the decision was made to place them in about 200 stores in the northeast United States near where Humankind Water is located. The water is from a protected spring in Honesdale, Pa., and bottled in the Pocono Mountains.
Calling Get on the Shelf a very “customer-centered program,” Jariwala said Walmart.com buyers cull the entries then customers could vote to create the top 20 finalists which were then placed in categories. Those finalists were flown to Bentonville to create webisodes about their products. Customers then had the ability to vote for the top contender in each category.
Foltz said he is grateful to the mentoring and support the company received throughout the process, including Scott Poole and Greg Pickens at Premier Concepts.
“They do merchandising for companies like ours. Their folks go into the stores, locate the bottles, and line them up like perfect little tin soldiers, as well as put up, or if need be, replace our in-store signage,” Foltz said of Premier Concepts.
Some of the help came from unexpected places.
“We heard during the Walmart.com contest — and to this day we have no idea how —that Bentonville High School was voting like crazy for Humankind Water,” he said. “I have absolutely no idea how that many students would have gotten the word about Humankind Water to vote for us, but many did. And I'd like to thank those folks.”
PLANS TO EXPAND
Selling more water means providing more water through philanthropic means.
“We would love to expand to nationwide and are striving every day to do so. But you have to understand, when we won the contest we were tiny,” Foltz said. “We started Humankind Water on a shoestring, and won the contest on a shoestring as well. We've expanded as far as we have without ever spending a penny (to date) on traditional advertising, which as you know, is unheard of in the industry. … So while we're not as far-ranging as we'd like to be (nationwide) we do feel great about the fact that we've gotten as far as we have spending next to nothing,” Foltz said.
He said there are plans for “some more mainstream advertising. People respond when they hear our story.”
While the bottled water is not available in Arkansas (“yet,” Foltz said), Northwest Arkansas residents can still order it for their own use, or for events and fundraisers. The process is to contact Foltz and order by the pallet. The water is purchased from Humankind Water for $1 a bottle and can be resold for more to generate needed funds for churches or other organizations.