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story.lead_photo.caption This undated file photo shows Wal-Mart's sign in front of its Bentonville headquarters.

Walmart Inc.’s seventh annual Open Call on Thursday took a markedly different form than in previous years, but that didn’t discourage entrepreneurs from seeking a chance to get their products into Walmart’s stores.

About 4,800 supplier-hopefuls applied this year for the opportunity to pitch their products to Walmart buyers, the retailer said — 44% more than last year. About 850 of those applicants were invited to take part in the event that’s been likened to the television series “Shark Tank.”

Businesses that receive Walmart’s version of a golden ticket can come away with deals that range from putting their products into a few local stores, supplying thousands of Walmart and Sam’s Club stores, or listing them on Walmart.com’s marketplace.

This year’s invitees included small and medium-sized businesses from 49 states plus the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Canada, Australia and Mozambique, the company said.

Walmart Chief Executive Officer Doug McMillon said the company wasn’t sure if there would be much interest in Open Call in a year “that’s been anything but typical.”

“Fortunately, if Open Call is any indication, the spirit of entrepreneurship hasn’t been dampened in this current climate,” McMillon said. “If anything, it’s only gotten stronger.”

Since its beginning in 2014, Open Call has been held every June at Walmart’s Bentonville headquarters. Hundreds of excited would-be suppliers converged on the building for 30-minute meetings with buyers.

This year, however, the pandemic caused the retailer to push the event to October and hold it online. Thursday morning’s general session with McMillon and other company executives was presented on YouTube, along with several breakout sessions on topics of interest to suppliers.

Open Call participants met with buyers via videoconferencing throughout the day.

Laura Phillips, Walmart’s senior vice president of global sourcing, said before the general session that an unexpected benefit of going virtual was that it allowed the company to invite more businesses to take part. Without the constraints of limited office space, she said, Walmart could schedule more meetings than in previous years.

“Open Call is a really special day because it focuses specifically on the capabilities of small and medium-sized businesses who are making products here in the U.S. to meet our customers’ needs,” Phillips said. “We love the energy, the innovation and the ingenuity that our Open Call entrepreneurs bring to the table.”

The yearly event is part of a commitment Walmart made in 2013 to invest $250 billion in products made or sourced in the U.S. by 2023, Phillips said. Open Call lets Walmart help support small businesses, which represent 99.7% of all U.S. businesses and drive local economies, she said,

McMillon said Open Call is one of his favorite events each year. “I love it when we find great items,” he said, “and I love it when our suppliers have a great story to tell about the business they’re building.”

“We value entrepreneurs,” McMillon said. In a nod to Walmart founder Sam Walton, he added, “We were founded by one and still have that spirit in our DNA.”

A Walmart spokeswoman said the company will release a recap today of the Open Call events. In past years, these have included the number of businesses that made deals with the retailer and the names of some of the companies.

Last year, several dozen of more than 500 entrepreneurs walked away with deals to put their products on Walmart’s shelves. A few others agreed to further talks with the retailer about developing or scaling their product. And every company pitching shelf-stable items was offered a chance to sell on the third-party marketplace.

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