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story.lead_photo.caption Bill and Sue Robertson, owners of Grandma’s Pure & Natural based in Tulsa, talk about their handmade soaps Tuesday with Rayanna Azar (right), who works in personal care and beauty product development for Walmart. Tuesday was the first day of Walmart’s annual Open Call event in Rogers. - Photo by Ben Goff

ROGERS -- More than 500 of the entrepreneurs invited to pitch their wares to buyers at Walmart Inc.'s sixth annual Open Call gathered Tuesday for a reception and mentoring session ahead of today's round of meetings at the retailer's Bentonville headquarters.

Supplier hopefuls from 48 states and as far away as Brazil and Australia filled several large banquet rooms with their wares at the John Q. Hammons Center in Rogers, and eagerly talked with visitors about their products. Covering every conceivable category, from skin care to lawn care and gadgets to gourmet foods, any of these items could soon appear on Walmart's shelves.

The two-day event has been likened to the reality TV show Shark Tank, in which entrepreneurs vie for funding to launch or expand a business. But Kinna Thomas, a senior buyer at Walmart, said the idea behind Open Call is actually "how can we help these businesses grow, because that's helping their communities grow."

And supporting communities is why Walmart has committed to investing $250 billion in products sourced in the U.S. by 2023, Thomas said. "We're being very intentional about that," she said. "We want a partnership with those businesses and want to make sure the business is strategically ready" to become a supplier to the world's largest retailer.

Not everyone is ready to have their products in all of Walmart's 4,700-plus U.S. stores, Thomas said, nor do they necessarily want that. Some may supply one or two stores, or the retailer's e-commerce site.

Thomas said she enjoys the Tuesday meet-and-greet because "I'm excited about seeing what's new." While she has experience in multiple product categories, her current area is fresh bakery items, and she looks forward to sampling the goods the visitors brought with them.

Buyers who'll meet with the would-be suppliers today are looking at three factors, Thomas said: innovation, quality and the supplier's logistics capability.

Many of the businesses also have a sustainability focus, such as Biodegradable Paper Straws from Los Angeles, Wonder Soil from Las Vegas, and Southeastern Packaging Technologies LLC from Oak Ridge, Tenn. Ammar Altawil, chief operating officer with Southeastern Packaging, said the company's patented "bag-in-box" system, which is used by other businesses to hold motor oil, household cleaners and other fluids, takes up 70% less storage space than plastic or metal containers and is recyclable.

Bryan Crosby, the company's chief executive officer, said they hoped to help Walmart "transition their product label lines into more eco-friendly packaging to help them achieve their target through 2025 of 1-gigaton reduction in carbon footprint."

This week's Open Call is Altawil and Crosby's first. "It's definitely very neat to see all the innovation and all the different entrepreneurs and ideas and hard-working people in the room," Crosby said, "and it's awesome to see Walmart doing everything they can to continue to invest in the local supply chain and local communities and everyday people like us."

Crosby said he and Altawil were "running too hard to be that anxious" about meeting with buyers, "but we're certainly excited about the opportunities for tomorrow, and we're very thankful for the opportunity to be here today."

Because some companies today will pitch multiple products, or products in more than one category, more than 600 meetings with buyers are scheduled. The day will start, though, with a general meeting in which attendees will hear from Walmart President and Chief Executive Officer Doug McMillon as well as guest speakers telling their success stories from past Open Call events.

Business on 06/19/2019

Print Headline: Businesses hone Walmart pitches; hundreds of would-be suppliers preparing for Open Call

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