Walmart said its annual Open Call event is anything but the norm this year, but the virtual event held Thursday (Oct. 1) is bigger than ever. Walmart CEO Doug McMillon said in his opening remarks there were questions about interest in the event given the ongoing pandemic.
“If Open Call is any indication, then ingenuity is alive and well in the U.S. as the number of applicants increased 44% this year to 4,800 and we scheduled 67% more meetings because we were not constrained by space. We value entrepreneurs. We were founded by one,” McMillon said in his opening remarks.
More than 850 entrepreneurs were selected via their RangeMe virtual submissions to take part in this year’s Open Call. Suppliers who already have products on Walmart shelves were not allowed to submit new items in the same category because Walmart sought to give as many new suppliers as possible time with buyer merchant teams.
At last year’s open call dozens of new suppliers received the green light to move forward with getting products on shelves. Jennifer Cummings of Buhl, Idaho, was in the crowd last year. Cummings and her husband Trent pitched their Cowgirl Compost lawn and garden product to buyers and worked hard to get that product into 69 Walmart stores on the West Coast.
Cummings was mentioned by Scott McCall, Walmart U.S. chief merchandising officer, during the opening session on Thursday. McCall said Cowgirl Compost is an example of how small businesses can get products in Walmart at a scale that works best for their size. Cummings, a dairy farmer, sought out a sustainable manure management solution that resulted in the creation of Cowgirl Compost. The farm was too small to spread all the manure generated by the dairy herd and Cummings found a solution to market the manure at retail.
McCall said some of the best items he ever bought into Walmart started with distribution in just 10 stores, and then expanded as the company could scale up. He said Walmart’s commitment to buying U.S.-made products is alive and well because it makes good business sense.
Walmart also highlighted the importance of U.S. manufacturing as it creates good-paying jobs in communities around the country. McCall said Zinus Mattress, a Walmart supplier, recently announced plans to invest $108 million in a factory and distribution center in McDonough, Ga., He said the new facility is expected to create 804 new jobs. Zinus is based in South Korea and the Georgia facility will be the company’s first U.S. plant that will also serve distribution centers for retail customers of Walmart and its competitors.
McMillon also highlighted collaboration with suppliers and retail partners during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. He said small- and medium-size businesses are important to the success of Walmart and the U.S. economy.
“We have thousands of nail salons, barber shops and eateries that operate in our Supercenters and they were impacted dramatically from COVID-19 shutdowns. We waived rent requirements for April and May and are continuing to make rent adjustments from September through next January,” McMillon said.
He also said Walmart has worked to get cash-strapped suppliers earlier payments through options with lending partners and financial service providers. McMillon said small- and medium-size suppliers to Walmart can now access expedited payments to help with immediate cash needs.
McMillon said small craft breweries like Bentonville-based Bike Rack also suffered amid the pandemic.
“We have expanded our relationships with these 200-plus local breweries around the country to offer pop craft beer in local stores. We grew our SKU (Item) count by 56% during the height of the pandemic,” he said. “BikeRack has told us the opportunity to sell more at retail has helped the company keep its 30 employees paid through the pandemic.”
Jeff Charlson, founder and co-owner of Bike Rack Brewing Co., told Talk Business & Politics in May his company would survive this pandemic, but not all will likely do so.
“Walmart has reached out to the craft breweries and said the 15 local stores in Northwest Arkansas are going to feature the local beer with new signage and prominent placement in the coming weeks as they understand the importance retail sales have become for us since this shutdown,” Charlson said in May.
Walmart U.S. CEO John Furner took part in the open session by interviewing Robert Irvine of the Food Network television show “Restaurant Impossible” via a virtual format. Irvine is also a Walmart supplier of FitCrunch fitness bars and he runs a food company. Irvine said as restaurants were shuttered by state governors at the height of COVID-19, his phone rang constantly from business owners looking for expertise. He said being able to make decisions quickly and pivot at a moment’s notice has become a necessary life skill for restaurant owners and small business operators.
Irvine put six people on two buses and traveled around the country to help as many business owners as possible navigate the challenging time. He said they evaluated more than 200 restaurants and worked with owners to maneuver the challenges. He said there are always going to be challenges, but this year it just happens to be complicated by COVID-19. Irvine said his military background prepared him to be decisive and then pivot hard and the skills continue to serve his other businesses well.
Irvine was not the only celebrity to make an appearance during the opening session of Open Call. Snoop Dogg had a cameo plug for his Indoggo “Gin and Juice.” He said his strawberry-infused spirit was coming soon to Walmart stores.
Five-time Olympic champion swimmer Missy Franklin gave a plug for Coca-Cola’s new sparkling flavored water Aha. Franklin is an ambassador for the brand. She told the hopeful suppliers she knows exactly what it’s like to set lofty goals and work hard to achieve them.
“This is an amazing opportunity for you to get your product into Walmart stores … it’s not going to be easy but you can do it,” Franklin said.
She encouraged the participants to be open to feedback to improve whatever they can. She told them to focus on their strengths but to also work everyday to improve their weaknesses.
Walmart was scheduled to conclude buyer meetings Thursday afternoon and then update the media with preliminary results.