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A new day for Walmart and its suppliers

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Last month Walmart hosted a gathering of suppliers that can be accurately labeled unique in the annals of retailer-supplier meetings.

Held at Walmart’s Bentonville, Ark., offices, the meeting brought some 500 suppliers and potential suppliers from 46 states to Bentonville, to pitch products or, more accurately, to seek the opportunity to pitch products to the world’s largest retailer.

The meeting was unique for several reasons. For one, it was an invitation-only event. If a supplier wasn’t asked to come that supplier was not expected — nor welcomed.

For another, the entire Walmart, Sam’s Club and walmart.com buying and merchandising staffs were on hand for the occasion. Not only were they instructed to attend, they were advised to meet with as many suppliers as time permitted — and encouraged to look favorably on supplier offerings, even those items that would have, in the past, been turned down.

But what made the meeting truly memorable was that it solicited from suppliers particular types of products — those produced, assembled, sourced or grown in the United States.
This was, in short, the first public display of Walmart’s program, announced last year, to spend an additional $250 billion in the next 10 years on products that support U.S. ­manufacturing.

By any reckoning, the program was a resounding success. For one day in July, Walmart threw open its corporate doors to any supplier that offered a product with some connection to America beyond a U.S. label or packaging instructions. Not only were the corporate buying staffs willing to listen; they were eager to listen — and, within the conference’s framework, to buy.

So it was that 175 buyers attended over 800 meetings with suppliers that had themselves committed to producing goods in the U.S. That commitment could take a variety of forms, up to and including opening or expanding U.S.-based manufacturing or production facilities. All that was asked was that the commitment be sincere — and that the goods presented would be U.S.-made goods.

Surprisingly, or maybe not, the Walmart gathering was likely the first ever programmed by a retailer. Surprisingly, because Walmart gained lots from this adventure, most notably the opportunity to sample a range of merchandise most retailers never get to explore.

But if Walmart benefited, the suppliers who came to Bentonville gained even more — specifically, the opportunity to present their products to the largest retailer in the U.S. As a rule, suppliers have a difficult time getting in front of a major retailer — if indeed they get to make the journey at all. In this instance, by contrast, they were welcomed by a group of merchants who don’t ordinarily make themselves available to any supplier with an idea.

To smooth the way even further, the Walmart people offered ideas and insights into making the job of selling to Walmart even easier. Not general ideas, but ideas that pertained specifically to Walmart.

At days end, the suppliers on hand lauded the event virtually without exception. Moreover, they left convinced that this day marked a new beginning in their relationship with Walmart, one which, for many, had not run especially smoothly in the past.

Put another way, Walmart is committed to this program, to the extent that the retailer’s merchants intend to pursue those items and companies that showed special promise.

Clearly, the intent is to transform this “Open Call” event into an ongoing program, one which will clearly benefit the retailer, the retailer’s customers, suppliers willing to make a commitment to American products and the communities in which these products are made, assembled, grown or sourced.

In other words, Open Call shows every initial promise of transforming U.S. retailing in ways too numerous to mention.


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