Oxford company earns spot on Walmart shelves

Les Thomas (left), owner and president of Oxford Brands, holds the “golden ticket” that will allow his company’s products to appear on Walmart shelves. With him is Jim Adams, the company’s senior vice president. Photo provided.
Les Thomas (left), owner and president of Oxford Brands, holds the “golden ticket” that will allow his company’s products to appear on Walmart shelves. With him is Jim Adams, the company’s senior vice president. Photo provided.

Attention Walmart shoppers! Products put out by an Oxford-based company could be coming to a store near you.

Last week, the corporate giant made a deal with Oxford Brands LLC, located at 1785 N. Lapeer Rd., to eventually have its goods appear on store shelves.

“I told my family when I got home, it was really one of the highlights of my business life,” said Les Thomas, president and owner of Oxford Brands.

Oxford Brands sells a line of premoistened, body-cleansing towels and wipes under the name Black Smoke. The products are manufactured here in the Midwest.

Thomas and Jim Adams, the company’s senior vice president, travelled to Bentonville, Arkansas – where Walmart headquarters is located – to participate in the corporation’s Fifth Annual Open Call event on June 13.

Oxford Brands was one of 40 Michigan-based businesses that were invited to meet one-on-one with buyers and pitch their American-made products in the hopes of earning a coveted spot on the shelves of Walmart and Sam’s Club stores.

“You get about half-an-hour in the pitch room,” said Thomas, who lives in Independence Township.

The Open Call event is part of a commitment Walmart made in 2013 to purchase an additional $250 billion in products made, sourced and grown in the United States by 2023.

More than 450 companies representing 48 states and Puerto Rico were selected to participate in this year’s Open Call.

Oxford Brands offers a 2-foot-by-4-foot towel, which comes one to a package, and 10-inch-by-12-inch wipes available in a 12-pack. The towels and wipes are durable, alcohol-free, fragrance-free and enriched with aloe. They are disposable and biodegradable.

According to Thomas, the buyers’ “real enthusiasm” was for the large towels be cause they are “so unique.” He said in a market saturated with “a ton” of baby wipes and moist towelettes, a 2-foot-by-4-foot towel stands out in the crowd.

Thomas and Adams pitched the towel as a great way for campers, hikers, hunters and other outdoor enthusiasts to quickly and easily remove dirt and odor in places where “water is scarce.”

“That is really the key,” Thomas said. “It’s for when you don’t have water available to you, when you can’t just jump in the lake.”

Not only does the 2-foot-by-4-foot towel take the place of that absent water source, it offers a much more practical and user-friendly alternative to the “15 or 20” small wipes a person might use to cleanse themselves in the outdoors, according to Thomas.

“It’s like a shower in a bag,” he said.

Thomas couldn’t believe it when, at the end of the presentation, the Walmart buyers literally handed them a “golden ticket,” a prized piece of paper indicating that a deal had been struck to place their product on store shelves.

“That was a big thrill for both Jim and I,” Thomas said.

But there are still many details to be worked out, including developing the packaging, determining the size and frequency of orders and figuring out how to integrate the products into Walmart’s “planogram.”

A planogram a diagram, model or drawing that depicts the exact placement of every retail product on a store’s shelves in an effort to maximize sales.

“What Walmart does with (our products) really remains to be seen,” Thomas said. “They were asking if we were flexible in terms of size and how many in a pack. Obviously, when Walmart asks that question, the answer is, ‘Look, we’ll do whatever you want to do. You just tell us how this best fits your planogram, your pricing model and what it is you’re trying to accomplish for your customer and then we’ll all work together to make that happen.’”

Thomas noted the buyers also “talked to us about possibly renaming” the products in order to market them to outdoor enthusiasts.

Right now, the towels and wipes bear the name Black Smoke because they are marketed to firefighters, police officers, emergency medical personnel, members of the military and those involved in search-and-rescue work, disaster relief and on-site cleanup.

For example, after working at a scene, firefighters can use them to immediately “remove soot and grime” from their bodies that may contain carcinogens, according to Thomas.

“They really are susceptible to a lot of cancer-causing (agents),” he said.

Thomas noted Black Smoke products were field-tested by a team of firefighters (which included his son-in-law) in Denver, Colorado and “they love it.”

“Our first units of product for the firefighter community will be here in Oxford probably mid-to-late July,” he said. “We bought 70,000 units of product  . . . and we’ll start shipping to people all around the country.”

Thomas is proud to offer an American-made product and pleased he’s able to do business with a Midwestern manufacturer that adheres to the “same high-quality standards” as Oxford Brands.

“You would always rather buy American than an overseas option,” he said. “It was really a very easy decision.”

He’s pleased that Walmart is also committed to purchasing products made, sourced or grown in the USA.

Echoing the sentiments he heard expressed during the Open Call event, Thomas said, “If every company in America did this, as great as our economy is today, just imagine how much better it would be . . . It’s truly heartwarming.”

Walmart estimates that 1 million new U.S. jobs will be created through its initiative to purchase American  products, based on data from Boston Consulting Group. Last year, Walmart spent $3 million with Michigan suppliers, supporting 47,000 local jobs.

Thomas noted he’s anticipating having to move Oxford Brands to a larger space in August or September, so he’s currently looking for a place with 10,000 square feet and a loading dock,  “preferably right here in Oxford”

“I’ve been here a long time. I’ve got a lot of money invested in property in town,” he explained. “I purposely want to be here. I had opportunities to lease space in Orion and Auburn Hills and elsewhere. I just wouldn’t do it. It’s very important to me to continue to support . . . the people that I know so well.”

Thomas wished to note that Danielle Hall, president and marketing specialist with the Clawson-based Bloom Marketing Co., created the retail packaging along with the presentation material “that just blew the (Walmart) buyers away.”

For more information about Oxford Brands LLC, please visit www.oxfordbrandsllc.com.

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