A 41-year-old former lawyer who'd become involved with the small bakery after helping it avoid eviction, she'd spent the past three years expanding the company's product line and getting it in to Wegman's, Starbucks and elsewhere. She arrived at open call wearing a gray skirt, a white t-shirt that said “I love D.C. sweet potato cake,” and flowers in her hair to pitch the original cake and a newer red velvet version. “We just knew we needed to connect with the company,” she said. As a small company, she didn't expect a yes yet, and was surprised when she got one. “In our heads, it was 2025, but in Wal-Mart’s mind it’s today," she said.
Richardson’s D.C. Sweet Potato Cake was one of nearly 100 companies that got an immediate yes at Wal-Mart’s fourth annual open call. Wal-Mart set aside this one day for manufacturers, however small, of American-made products to pitch their goods to one of its buyers. The event is part of the retailing behemoth’s promise to add $250bn worth of American-manufactured goods by 2023. People representing more than 500 companies and 750 products flooded in to Bentonville for the opportunity to get a 30-minute hearing with a Wal-Mart buyer.
By 7:30 in the morning, Wal-Mart’s headquarters (or home office, as everyone there calls it) was buzzing. Many would-be suppliers wore the red-white-and-blue of the American flag. All had “Buy American Program” buttons attached to their Wal-Mart badges, political-convention style. Two men representing a company that sells banana milk walked around in banana suits. Joe Freeman, CEO of Lenexa, Kansas.-based MedZone, which makes a ChafeZone for Chub Rub anti-chafing rub for plus-sized women, had spent the previous night at a Wal-Mart store, looking for ideas to improve his pitch. The excursion, he said, helped him learn more about the products already on Wal-Mart's shelves, important knowledge that buyers want to see. “This is like Shark Tank,” he said, “but the people are nice.”
This being Wal-Mart, the morning kicked off with the Wal-Mart cheer (“give me a W….”), followed by speeches from Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson and CEO Doug McMillon. “I just want to buy items all day,” McMillon, who took over the top role in 2014, told the crowd. “I would love to just walk up and down the hallway and say, ‘yes!’”
For the entrepreneurs there, the stakes were high: A deal for as few as 50 or 100 stores could put a new brand on the map. For Wal-Mart, the world’s largest store with nearly $500bn in revenue, the stakes were equally high: In an increasingly competitive retail environment, it needs to find ways to keep growing. Some of the best bets for growth come from the innovations of small and medium-sized businesses. “We are seeing hundreds and hundreds of innovative products,” said Cindi Marsiglio, Wal-Mart’s vice president of U.S. sourcing and manufacturing.
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