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Small U.S. Manufacturers Pitch Their Products At Walmart's Annual Open Call Day

Forbes logo Forbes 6/29/2017 Amy Feldman, Forbes Staff

Would-be suppliers arrive at Walmart's open call event before 8 a.m. © Would-be suppliers arrive at Walmart’s open call event in Bentonville, Ark., before 8 a.m. Would-be suppliers arrive at Walmart's open call event before 8 a.m.

April Richardson, president of D.C. Sweet Potato Cake, drove more than 17 hours from her home base in Hyattsville, Md., with her sister singing karaoke songs along the way, to pitch her sweet potato cakes at Walmart’s open call event for American manufacturers in Bentonville, Ark., on Wednesday. A 41-year-old former lawyer who’d become involved with the small bakery after helping it avoid eviction, she’d spent the past three years expanding the company’s product line and getting it in to Wegman’s, Starbucks and elsewhere. She arrived at open call wearing a gray skirt, a white t-shirt that said “I love D.C. sweet potato cake,” and flowers in her hair to pitch the original cake and a newer red velvet version. “We just knew we needed to connect with the company,” she said. As a small company, she didn’t expect a yes yet, and was surprised when she got one. “In our heads, it was 2025, but in Walmart’s mind it’s today,” she said.

Richardson’s D.C. Sweet Potato Cake was one of nearly 100 companies that got an immediate yes at Walmart’s fourth annual open call. Walmart set aside this one day for manufacturers, however small, of American-made products to pitch their goods to one of its buyers. The event is part of the retailing behemoth’s promise to add $250 billion worth of American-manufactured goods by 2023. People representing more than 500 companies and 750 products flooded in to Bentonville for the opportunity to get a 30-minute hearing with a Walmart buyer.

April Richardson © April Richardson drove more than 17 hours to Bentonville, Ark., with her sister to pitch D.C. Sweet ... April Richardson

By 7:30 in the morning, Walmart’s headquarters (or home office, as everyone there calls it) was buzzing. Many would-be suppliers wore the red-white-and-blue of the American flag. All had “Buy American Program” buttons attached to their Walmart badges, political-convention style. Two men representing a company that sells banana milk walked around in banana suits. Joe Freeman, CEO of Lenexa, Kansas.-based MedZone, which makes a ChafeZone for Chub Rub anti-chafing rub for plus-sized women, had spent the previous night at a Walmart store, looking for ideas to improve his pitch. The excursion, he said, helped him learn more about the products already on Walmart’s shelves, important knowledge that buyers want to see. “This is like Shark Tank,” he said, “but the people are nice.”

This being Walmart, the morning kicked off with the Walmart cheer (“give me a W….”), followed by speeches from Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson and CEO Doug McMillon. “I just want to buy items all day,” McMillon, who took over the top role in 2014, told the crowd. “I would love to just walk up and down the hallway and say, ‘yes!’”

For the entrepreneurs there, the stakes were high: A deal for as few as 50 or 100 stores could put a new brand on the map. For Walmart, the world’s largest store with nearly $500 billion in revenue, the stakes were equally high: In an increasingly competitive retail environment, it needs to find ways to keep growing. Some of the best bets for growth come from the innovations of small and medium-sized businesses. “We are seeing hundreds and hundreds of innovative products,” said Cindi Marsiglio, Walmart’s vp of U.S. sourcing and manufacturing.

In small numbered rooms up and down a bland corporate hallway, entrepreneurs pitched buyers behind closed doors. In room 33, Janet Jones, 56, a former school counselor who founded Woodland Hills, California-based Photos to Design, was nervous as she geared up to pitch mousepads printed with her own photos of flowers and dogs. “My mouth is dry. I’ll be okay, I’ll be all right” she said. When the buyer arrived, she launched into her pitch about how the mousepads could brighten a computer user’s day.

Later, in room 19, Nathan Failla, a 23-year-old graduate of Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, successfully pitched his PocketGel instant hair gel to a Walmart buyer. “I used the pomade,” he noted of his perfectly coiffed hair. Then he pointed out the improved design on the boxes of his lineup of gels, which was so new that he’d brought the product itself in the old packaging.

In one of Walmart’s new test kitchens, former New England Patriots defensive end Jarvis Green, wearing a custom red chef’s shirt with his name and number, 97, on the back, cooked up a meal with the shrimp and sauces he was peddling for his Baton Rouge, La.-based Oceans 97. “I got a yes,” he said afterwards, noting there were still some important details to be worked out about the facilities where he gets the shrimp. “The next step is to get everything set up for the stores. Shrimp is a little different than plastics.”

Other immediate winners at the day’s event included Dera Industries, which got a deal for its reusable zip ties; O’Dang Hummus, which reached an agreement for a variety of flavors of its hummus; and Stinkbug Naturals, which got a yes on its lavender stick deodorant. Many others got an invitation to continue talking, or to come back to discuss a deal once some of the retailing giant’s conditions – on price, say, or packaging – were met. As one of Walmart’s buyers pointed out at a preparatory session the night before, if a shelf does $50 million in sales with 10 products on it, and your product takes up the space of two existing ones, the product must either do $10 million in sales or shrink in size.

For entrepreneurs who didn’t get immediate deals, there was a lot of advice – for those who were open enough to hear it. “It’s very emotional, and hard to take the emotion out of it and look at it objectively,” said Ashley Thompson, CEO of 50 Strong, a plastics company in Lima, Ohio. At her first open call a few years ago, only one of her three pitches was accepted; today, her company has 16 items in some 4,000 Walmart stores. She recently got a deal to sell 5 million plastic water bottles to Walmart, replacing a Chinese-made product. She was at open call this year to both guide new suppliers through the process as a speaker at an event the night before, and to pitch two new, plastic storage products. “This year,” she said, “is fun for us.”

As for April Richardson, she was ready for the long ride home, and hoping for less singing and more strategizing on the way. She got a definitive yes, but the number of stores still had to be worked out. Asked how many stores her sweet potato cakes would be in, she laughed, and then, like any good entrepreneurs would, she threw out the number 4,500, essentially all of Walmart’s U.S. stores.

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