Socks, dog treats, ice cream, meat pies some of items pitched at Walmart’s Open Call

by Kim Souza ([email protected]) 1,500 views 

Several hundred hopeful suppliers packed into Walmart’s home office auditorium early Wednesday for the retailer’s Open Call event. This is the sixth year for this event.

Walmart CEO Doug McMillon told more than 500 existing and potential suppliers during Wednesday’s (June 19) Open Call he wished he could tell everyone “yes.” It’s the sixth year for the event held at the retailer’s headquarters in Bentonville.

McMillon said some of the best times in his life were during the years he worked as a merchant buyer for Walmart. He said supporting U.S. manufacturing is an important mission for Walmart that dates back to Walmart founders Sam and Helen Walton. Walmart said it will have a more complete list of the meeting results on Thursday.

Walmart did not promise to give everyone in attendance a deal, but the retailer did tell everyone who has shelf-ready products and wants to sell on Walmart’s online marketplace they have an invitation. Two suppliers also got an instant “yes”  for in-store distribution at this year’s Open Call by Steve Bratspies, chief merchandising officer for Walmart U.S. He said the participants were asked to send in a video of their product. The two winners were brought on stage and told they were selected as the fan favorites among Walmart home office employees.

Sean Lee and Tiffany Yang of Sweety Mochi Ice Cream, a brand they created as second-generation ice cream makers from Los Angeles, got the automatic “yes” from Bratspies. Lee told Talk Business & Politics the ice cream snacks have less than 100 calories and are typically sold in Asian supermarkets in California. Getting into Walmart will be a major move for the company and he’s excited to meet with buyers to determine the next steps.

“We don’t want the world with Walmart, we want to start small and grow over time. Hopefully, we can launch in California where we already have strong brand recognition and go from there. We want to be able to fulfill our orders and not stress our current manufacturing that will have to be expanded,” Lee said.

Michelle Leffert, CEO of Foppers Pet Treat Bakery in Logansport, Ind., was the other instant winner. The dog treats are made from food-grade ingredients and the company has already built that brand into a $1 million business since its launch in 2004. The products are already sold in Krogers, Petsmart, Publix, Walgreens, Marshalls and T.J. Maxx.

(from left) Sean Lee of Sweety Ice Cream and Michelle Leffert, CEO of Foppers Pet Treat Bakery, were the first two participants to get a deal with Walmart during the retail giant’s Open Call event held in Bentonville on Thursday. Steve Bratspies, chief merchandising officer, made that announcement on stage at the general session. (photo courtesy of Walmart)

Jon Ehly, CEO of Plastilite Corp., from Omaha, Neb.,  pitched recycled foam coolers and minnow buckets that are biodegradable. Ehly said Walmart gave the company the green light on the coolers for 500 stores to start. The company is doing more work on the minnow bucket as that buyer wants to take the product private label.

“We couldn’t be happier with these results. The buyers loved the products and the eco-friendly Reform cooler will be sold in Walmart first. We will see where it goes from there,” Ehly said.

Nicole and Hugh Jarratt of Fayetteville are already Walmart suppliers with their plastic taco plates hitting stores five years ago after pitching that product at the retailer’s first Open Call. They have since placed other products in Walmart including a double-dipper bowl that despite selling well was pulled from the shelf in the last couple of years to make space for more ceramic dishware.

“These bowls were selling so well when they were pulled, we re-entered them again this year. We submitted a video of this product and it was chosen as one of the 30 winners to get a meeting at this year’s Open Call. That’s a good indication they could want to put the product back on the shelf,” Hugh Jarratt told Talk Business & Politics.

The taco plates and double dipper bowls are manufactured in Prairie Grove by PolyTech Plastic Molding & Extrusion.

The Jarratts also pitched insect-proof socks that protect legs from insect bites and wick away moisture. The socks are made in Nester, N.C., and Jarratt said Walmart wants to test the socks in 100 stores. The couple will work with the buyer to decide which stores make the most sense for the item geared to hunters and outdoor enthusiasts. The socks retail for $14.99, but he said the price will come down for Walmart.

Jarratt said he modified a design he got into Walmart several years ago for wader socks, used in duck hunting, and a boot sock. He said the Bug Out socks for adults and children are selling well on Amazon and he’s excited to see how they do in Walmart.

James Jones, president and inventor with Jonesboro-based Slammer Hunting Innovation, pitched his target tool for arrows and rifles at Walmart. A hunting enthusiastic and car salesman by trade, he came up with a tool that helps hunters improve their accuracy. The ruler-like paper instrument does the calculation for the hunters to let them know exactly how to recalibrate for a more accurate shot based on a test shot.

“With the cost of ammunition today every shot is more than $1.50. My product helps increase the accuracy of every shot so there is less wasted ammunition,” Jones said. “Walmart liked the product and I am going to work with them on some marketing strategies going forward. Walmart has the best model for this product and I have not shown it anywhere else. I am excited to see what we can do together.”

Cindi Marsiglio, vice president of merchandising and U.S. manufacturing, told Talk Business & Politics Walmart is 94% to its goal of sourcing an additional $250 billion in products made in the U.S. between 2013 and 2023. She said this year the company received three times the number of applications for Open Call. The company reviewed more than 10,000 applications and held more than 700 meetings on Wednesday.

“Entrepreneurs obviously like this program,” she said. “We are seven and a half years into our pledge and our progress has been great progress on this 10-year glide path. There are things we have learned along the way that are different than what I might have thought in 2013. We have lots of initiatives around categories. The categories we knew would be difficult are still difficult — electronics, apparel and patio furniture. But in each of those categories, our buyers have found opportunities domestically. These are smaller in scale but there’s a lot of them and they contribute greatly to the whole.”

She said in 2013, Walmart evaluated 1,300 categories and outlined the opportunities. She said large suppliers are making more products in the U.S., but the contribution of smaller suppliers through events like Open Call can’t be underestimated. Marsiglio said the volume of initiatives is greater but the value for each is smaller than perhaps she would have initially thought.

Marsiglio credits some of the success of the program to Walmart keeping a small dedicated team of three merchandising and sourcing experts since the beginning. She said the team works with suppliers and continually seeks opportunities to support the initiative and there is high accountability. Each quarter Marsiglio said she meets with the top leadership team to make sure the goals are aligned and work through challenges and discuss ongoing strategy for future engagement.

“Our suppliers are very creative,” Marsiglio said. “They are looking at their domestic distribution, and warehousing opportunities and looking at where and how they can locate product close to the consumer to be more responsive. Our suppliers still have challenges accessing capital, which is why we have the Small Business Association here at this year’s Open Call. Efficient packaging is also a challenge and we have a supplier academy on that today as well.”

She said Walmart recently launched a factory finder resource on its site that helps suppliers locate U.S. manufacturing capacity. This year’s event also features a private brands expo on Tuesday that allows suppliers to showcase all the products they make and it gave buyers a chance to see the products throughout the day. Marsiglio said suppliers might only have an appointment to pitch one item, but there could be 10 others in the product catalog. The expo was a way for them to get those products in front of buyers from multiple categories.

Augustine Guma made the trip from Virginia to Bentonville in hopes of getting his Guma meat pies into stores. Guma, a survivor of genocide in Uganda, said food saved his life in 2005 and he was waved through the firing line. Shortly afterward, he was rescued by the American Red Cross and made his way to the United States. Guma told Talk Business & Politics he washed dishes in a lobster restaurant and began experimenting with lobster meat pies, taking spices from the seven different continents and blending them together to create a unique taste.

“I began selling out of my kitchen to local 7-Eleven stores and then I got some culinary training and began to scale the business over time. I know food can bring nations and people together and that’s the essence of my brand,” Guma said.

He sells the products now to restaurants and food trucks but wants to get the product into more mainstream retail. He pitched the meat pies to buyers at Open Call and got positive feedback. Guma said the product is frozen and that makes it difficult to sell and ship online. He said Walmart is ordering 100 cases of the chicken, veggie, beef and lamb pies and will test the flavors in certain areas.

“We have some things to do but we will work with Walmart to get what they need to make this happen and hatch this dream,” Guma said.

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