The Supply Side: Walmart’s Open Call gives two Arkansas companies a shot

by Kim Souza ([email protected]) 3,983 views 

Two Arkansas-based companies made the cut at Walmart’s eighth annual Open Call event to get their products on the retailer’s shelves.

Camo Dust, based in Lonoke, and Bentonville-based Bucklebury each told the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal about their deals with Walmart.

The two companies were among 900 entrepreneurs to virtually pitch products to buyer teams on June 30. Walmart said it was the largest class of entrepreneurs in its eight years of hosting the event. The 900 participants were culled from more than 12,000 meeting requests received by the retail giant.

Jim Miller, founder and CEO of Bucklebury, a health supplement startup, said Walmart was interested in the company’s “Soothing Silver Lozenge,” a natural dietary supplement to support the immune system.

Miller hatched the company in 2017. He was making the product in syrup form for friends and family who kept asking for more. By 2019, the product was being manufactured in Utah in lozenge form. The company began selling in health foods specialty stores, including Akin’s Natural Foods in Rogers and Ozark Natural Foods in Fayetteville. Miller said Bucklebury sells products in about 25 Arkansas brick-and-mortar locations and other states.

When the Open Call opportunity came around this year, Miller said he felt the company was ready to pitch to the mass retail giant. He said 2020 was the first full year of selling, and the product landed on Amazon. Then the reviews began to add up along with a high repeat purchase rate.

Miller said he began dabbling in herbal remedies around 2002, and he became a master herbalist. He said the cough syrup was so popular with friends and family that he decided to mass-produce it. He said that as bad as the COVID-19 pandemic was for the world, it was also a wake-up call for many to try to be healthier, which meant an uptick in immune system boosters, probiotics and other natural health remedies.

“We benefited from this new focus on health and wellness, and our move into Walmart is timely in that sense,” he said.

Camo Dust is a small business that serves hunters and outdoor enthusiasts, which also picked up during the pandemic. Camo Dust CEO Mike Parnell said the product Walmart said “yes” to is a powder that hunters use to conceal the human scent for those in deer stands or while hunting bears or hogs. Camo Dust is from an original patent Parnell acquired in the 1980s. The original use was an additive in poultry houses to mask the smell of ammonia and promote better overall air quality, enhancing flock mortality. Parnell said the product had a limited use potential as poultry houses became ventilated.

Then the company repurposed the product as a cat litter additive and got into Walmart stores in the early 1990s. He said the product was in 2,300 stores, and it was shipped to 26 distribution centers.

“We had a great experience with Walmart back then and understood other products took our space,” Parnell said.

When his brother was leaving on a fall hunt, he asked if any litter additive was left because he wanted to mask his sweaty scent. He said the results were terrific, and deer or any other animals could not detect any human scent in the presence of humans.

“We then ground up the pellets into powder and named it Camo Dust,” Parnell said. “We sent out 400 samples to hunting organizations, and it was field tested with the National Hunters Association with a 96% approval rating.”

Parnell said the company approached a major hunting organization to make the product under a private brand, and that relationship lasted about two years. In 2018, he said, people on social media were asking where they could find Camo Dust, which prompted the company to relaunch it online and in hunting specialty stores. With two years of sales data, Parnell said he thought the time was right to pitch to Walmart again.

“Our call could not have gone any better with Walmart,” he said. “We are working on getting our vendor number and hopefully making it on shelves by the hunting season of 2022. We are a seasonal product, and we know modulars are already set for this fall, but that gives us time to ramp up production so that we are on time with our shipments late next summer.”

Parnell’s operation employs about eight workers in peak season and half of that in the off-season. He said all the products are made in Lonoke and shipped from there. He’s unsure how many jobs the Walmart contract will add, given he does not yet know what his store count will be.

“There are roughly 10 big hunting states with 9 million active hunters, and that is a big market for our product. We are excited to work with Walmart again,” he said.

Walmart’s commitment to source goods made, grown or assembled in the U.S. is not new. In early 2013, the company committed $250 billion by 2023, only to raise that estimate to $350 billion this year. This new goal runs through 2030 and includes the launch of American Lighthouses, a collaborative effort to sustain manufacturing jobs in various U.S. regions. Walmart said its investment to support U.S. manufacturing jobs will exceed $600 billion over two decades.

“U.S. manufacturing matters,” said John Furner, CEO Walmart U.S. “It matters to our suppliers, to entrepreneurs and the environment. It matters to our customers — more than 85% of whom have said it’s important for us to carry products made or assembled in the U.S. And most of all, because of the jobs it brings, it matters to American communities and the people who live in them.”

Since the first Open Call event in 2014, Walmart has held thousands of meetings with supplier manufacturers and entrepreneurs about adding hundreds more U.S.-made products to the mix. That is in addition to those suppliers that sought to onshore some of their manufacturing for Walmart.

Over the last two years, approximately 1,536 small businesses have seen their products advance to the next stage in the Open Call process to land a deal with Walmart or Sam’s Club. Of those suppliers, 42% self-reported as diverse, according to Walmart. The retailer could not say precisely how many suppliers have been added through Open Call in the past eight years.

The Reshoring Initiative estimated in 2017 that Walmart’s manufacturing agenda would support 300,000 jobs by 2023. The Boston Consulting Group estimated Walmart’s effort would support a million jobs in the services support and manufacturing sectors by 2023.

Editor’s note: The Supply Side section of Talk Business & Politics focuses on the companies, organizations, issues and individuals engaged in providing products and services to retailers. The Supply Side is managed by Talk Business & Politics and sponsored by Propak Logistics.