Inventors set sights on Walmart slots

Brad Hill of Bentonville said it came to him in a dream.

Following in the footsteps of his father, Hill became a physical therapist with no intention of inventing a thing, much less a product for Walmart.

One night, Hill awoke and scrawled down what would years later become the Landle, a straplike lifting aid for large, heavy, sometimes awkward household and outdoor items. His invention, along with products from other U.S. suppliers, caught the eye of buyers at Walmart's Made in America open-call event last summer. They now fill the shelves of hundreds of Walmart stores.

Today marks the fifth year the world's largest retailer has drawn U.S. entrepreneurs to Bentonville, where they can pitch their products for a potential deal with the company. They come from 46 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia.

"Open call came last year, and we thought 'shoot, we don't have anything to lose,'" Hill said. After signing up, the father and son met with two buyers who liked what the two physical therapists were selling.

From there, Hill and his father, David, worked with 12 Stone Brands to meet distribution, supply and fulfillment demands. By April, their product hit shelves in the home and office sections of 1,700 Walmart stores.

"That one open-call meeting has opened up a huge opportunity for the Landle," Brad Hill said. "From a dream one night to a product that's nationwide."

More than 450 companies are scheduled today to pitch their products to Walmart buyers. Some already have their products in company stores,; others simply want to get a foot in the door. More than 750 meetings are scheduled, with product pitches ranging from toys and apparel to cosmetics and food categories. The open-call tradition aligns with the company's commitment to invest $250 billion in American-made products by 2023.

Kinna Thomas, a senior buyer for Walmart, said there are three key factors the company looks for in a supplier: the product's quality, cost, and relevance to the customer. Another factor the retail giant considers is where the supplier is on its "product journey," she said.

Some can already meet the retailer's supply requirements; others have more of a hobbylike scale. Depending on how developed the product is, Thomas said, the supplier could land a deal to stock thousands of stores, or the product could be available only online.

"We're seeking out everything innovative, creative, new and different," she said. "I recall things that are super special."

One product that came to mind was the Taco Plate, which simply holds hard shells upright. The moment Thomas saw the plate, she said, "I couldn't wait for it to hit shelves."

Hugh Jarrat of Fayetteville pitched the idea at Walmart's first open call five years ago. After his 30-minute meeting, the retail giant secured an order for 1 million Taco Plates. Every year since, he's been back with new ideas, ranging from socks that deter bugs to scented pieces of wood that work like fragrance warmers. This year, however, he won't be in attendance.

"I think open call is a great opportunity for little folks like me," he said. "I think they give a lot of chances to people. It's so hard to get a meeting with a buyer at a large store because they're so busy."

Jarrat Industries LLC was one of about 500 businesses that participated last year.

"They're looking for a product that fits with their customer, whose price is attractive to their customers," Jarrat said. "If you have proven sales, that makes the sales pitch a lot easier."

Taylor Tarlton of El Dorado found out about Walmart's open call from a friend he met at a Brookshire's grocer, on the final day of registration. He said that filling out the application at the last minute, then getting Walmart's approval for today's event, was "kind of a whirlwind."

Tarlton is vice president of operations at Old Hickory LLC, one of 13 companies from Arkansas presenting today that could secure a deal with the world's largest retailer.

"With Walmart, we don't want to oversell ourselves," he said. "We're excited about it, but going in with a level head."

Old Hickory, a sauce company, was established in 1944. It began as a local barbecue joint that later sold bottles of its signature sauce to nearby stores. After years of grocery shakeups and downsizing, the original owners sold Old Hickory in 2003 to some locals who worked the region's oil fields. One of them was Tarlton's father-in-law.

The company has regained its footing. The owners purchased new equipment, expanded sauce production and acquired a hot-water corn bread maker in 2017. That same year, Old Hickory developed variations of the original barbecue recipe and three kinds of Worcestershire sauces.

Tarlton said the company wanted to stand out this year. Instead of relying on its barbecue sauces, or hot-water corn bread, the Old Hickory crew will present its homemade Worcestershire sauces -- regular, smoke and hot.

Business on 06/13/2018