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Treats are in store at big chains

Small businesses’ goods showcased

By Gail Waterhouse
Globe Correspondent / January 28, 2012
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Target’s mascot, Bullseye the dog, is about to get a lot happier.

Starting in May, Polka Dog Bakery, with retail locations in the South End and Jamaica Plain, will be selling an exclusive line of products at Target stores across the country.

The display will be part of The Shops at Target collection, an initiative that will bring in five small businesses from across the country to sell their products in stores and on Target.com for six weeks.

“This is actually a first for Target,’’ said spokeswoman Erin Conroy. “We love to give our guests the thrill of discovery, and we think they’ll really be pleasantly surprised by this.’’

Big chains often are criticized for hurting local merchants, but now Target Corp. and Walmart Stores Inc. are reaching out to small businesses to form partnerships. The strategy comes at a time when consumers are paying attention to where their products come from and are buying locally produced goods. The National Retail Federation said that overall holiday sales were up 4.1 percent in 2011, compared with the previous year, but independent retailers reported a holiday sales increase of 6.7 percent, according to a survey released this week by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a nonprofit involved in community development.

Ani Collum, an analyst at consultancy firm Retail Concepts, said chains are teaming up with local merchants “to capitalize on this movement and be more relevant to consumers and what they care about, which is local stores.’’

In a way, “they’re shedding this big box image,’’ she said.

Collum thinks other large retailers will be quick to create similar campaigns. “It’ll be something that’ll be a trend in the industry,’’ she said. “I’m not sure how long it’ll be, but other stores will jump on the bandwagon.’’

Michelle Long, president of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, a nonprofit that works with local business organizations, said megastores partnering with small businesses is a small step, but not big enough to make long-term change in the retail world.

“To me it’s kind of like Starbucks selling a little bit of fair trade coffee,’’ she said. “They’re good steps. I’d rather see fair trade coffee than not. What we really need is to keep going here.’’

Target said it plans another display of small businesses later in 2012, and more in 2013 if these collections are successful.

The Minneapolis retailer isn’t the only big box store that is looking to team up with small businesses. Walmart launched its “Get on the Shelf’’ contest last week as a way to reach out to small and medium businesses. Contestants upload videos of a product they want to sell at Walmart, and the public will vote on the winners. The top three will have their items sold on Walmart.com, and one grand prize winner will also get his or her product on the shelves of Walmart stores.

“It’s a way to help businesses find a way into Walmart,’’ said Chris Bolte, vice president of Walmart Labs, a unitthat works with social media and mobile devices to promote e-commerce.

One of the challenges of showcasing products from small businesses is that they can’t make enough products to fill orders for big chains. But Walmart plans to handle the entire manufacturing process for contest winners, as will Target for its initiative.

Polka Dog Bakery started working with Target a year ago, after one of its merchandise buyers noticed the shop while looking for new products for the chain.

Owners Rob Van Sickle and Deb Gregg-Suchman worked closely with Target designers to create a new line of 26 products that includes dog treats, with names like The Big Dig Cheese Biscuits and General Bow Wow’s Chicken Biscuits, and accessories like toys and bowls.

“We’ve never done our own collars or toys before,’’ Gregg-Suchman said. “It’s been an exciting experience.’’

The bakery, which opened in 2002, got its name from Van Sickle and Gregg-Suchman’s dog Pearl, a street dog from Puerto Rico that they adopted. Pearl was missing an eye and shook her head back and forth to greet people, resulting in what looked like the dog doing the polka.

After spoiling their dog with decadent homemade treats for years, Van Sickle and Gregg-Suchman decided to expand to the space on Shawmut Avenue to offer their goods to other South End dog lovers, and expanded again to a location in Jamaica Plain in 2009.

Now their products are set to go into 1,767 Targets.

“We like the idea of bringing Polka Dog to all these different places across the country,’’ Gregg-Suchman said. “Being able to share our vision with the assistance of Target in a unique way, to have that national presence, is very exciting for us.’’

Gail Waterhouse can be reached at gail.waterhouse@globe.com.

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