UPDATED: For manufacturers, it can be a challenge to crack into the world’s biggest retailer, but Wal-Mart made it easier on July 8 by hosting its first-ever “Made In the USA” open call — and about half of the 500-plus suppliers made their first pilgrimage to Bentonville, Ark.
It’s part of a plan by Wal-Mart Stores Inc. to spend an additional $250 billion on U.S.-made products over the next decade.
Michelle Gloeckler, Wal-Mart’s executive vice president of consumables and U.S. manufacturing, said the retailer wants to increase the U.S. items it already buys, support the re-shoring of those goods and source products from new domestic suppliers.
“We’re about 18 months into this initiative,” Gloeckler said in a conference call. U.S. manufacturing is becoming more competitive internationally thanks to automation and lower energy prices, she said.
“We’ve identified many of these [cases] where the U.S. is incredibly productive,” she said.
Suppliers who visited the Made in the USA event held about 800 meetings with Wal-Mart buyers and attended classes on labeling and packaging, product compliance, sustainability, diversity and an analysis of Wal-Mart’s customer base. Each got about 30 minutes to make a pitch, and explain how the product fits with Wal-Mart and is differentiated from existing offerings in the stores, Gloeckler said.
Deals got made on the spot for a wide range of products, including plastic toys, trash bags, shower curtains and office supplies.
Wal-Mart bought 1 million high density polyethylene taco plates from Fayetteville, Ark., inventor Hugh Jarratt — and now company that molds the plates plans to add about 10 jobs.
Jarratt dreamed up the plate in college, when he got tired of his tacos falling over. Now he and his wife Nicole, who are both lawyers, run Jarratt Industries. He dreams up other new product ideas.
To develop the taco plate, he played around with Floam, the children’s modeling material, then had a prototype made. He quickly sold out at a local craft fair and began searching for a local manufacturer.
“I Googled injection molding, comma, Arkansas. And Poly Tech came up,” Jarratt said.
The company, Poly-Tech Plastic Molding Inc., in Prairie Grove, Ark., was just a half-hour drive from the Jarratt’s home. “They built the mold and they made every taco plate that’s ever been sold. I’ve been with them from the beginning.”
Gaylene Deere, Poly-Tech’s plant manager, said the company will hire about 10 people, and buy another injection molding machine, to help fill the million-plate order. The company currently employs about 50. It runs 19 injection presses in clamping force from 60-700 tons, and one extrusion line.
Deere said the molder has won other new business from Wal-Mart’s buy-American initiative.
Poly-Tech, which has its own tool-shop, is always open to inventors, she said. “We entertain anyone’s ideas,” Deere said. “If they bring in an idea then we help them. We do design work as well, and we also work with other designers.”
For Jarratt’s taco plate, it paid off.
Another inventor, John Cundy of Detroit, had “no idea what to expect” during his Wal-Mart visit. Cundy invented and makes the Trash-Ease, a bent wire frame that supports a plastic trash bag hung off the edge of a picnic table or stadium bleachers. Cundy said he expected to get “beaten up” by the Wal-Mart buyers on his first-ever trip to Bentonville, “but it felt great. It was just so easy.”
Cundy, who sculpts clay models of cars at General Motors Co., said he got the idea for the bag holder after crawling around under the bleachers helping clean up after one of his kid’s track meets a few years ago. He participated in the Wal-Mart conference call.
So far this year, his small company has sold 42,000 Trash-Ease units, to Lowe’s Home Improvement stores, Ace hardware stores and local campgrounds.
Wal-Mart ordered 50,000 units, more than double Cundy’s previous largest order. “I got the biggest order of my life. It was an amazing moment. I was walking about a foot off the ground,” he said.
Jarratt, the taco plate maven, also enjoyed his first visit to Wal-Mart headquarters. “They made the process easy for us. Everybody that I dealt with up there was as friendly as they could be,” he said.
Gloeckler said Wal-mart also bought shampoo, flashlights and other new inventions. Many could appear in the stories in the next 60 days. “You’ll see many of these products in the stories for the holiday season,” she said.
One advantage of China is a complete network of component suppliers, often in the same town. The United States will have to rebuild that network.
“They have difficulty finding component parts that are made in the U.S.,” Gloeckler said. So Wal-Mart will be hosting component suppliers at a future U.S. manufacturing forum in Bentonville.