Sam’s Club President and CEO John Furner told business leaders and executives in Little Rock on Wednesday (Jan. 30) that the wholesale retailer has undergone the greatest transformation in the company’s history as technology has changed the way consumers interact with retailers.
“Retail is being impacted in transforming ways like none of us has ever seen before,” Furner said during his address at the Arkansas Economic Development Foundation’s annual luncheon at the Statehouse Convention Center in Little Rock.
“As the change in technology continues to exponentially grow, we are finding all new sorts of ways to innovate and ways of working, and developing products that make it easier for our consumers to shop, but also to make it easier for our associates to be productive and get information while they are working,” Furner told a crowd of more than 500 people, including Gov. Asa Hutchinson and legislators taking time away from the 92nd General Assembly.
Furner, a Jacksonville, Ark., native who described himself to the luncheon group as “Arkansan to the bone,” took the reins at Sam’s Club almost two years ago when longtime CEO Rosalind Brewer stepped down and was later hired as Starbucks COO.
Furner started with Walmart as an hourly associate in 1993 and has held many significant roles throughout the company during his 26-year career. As the top executive at Sam’s Club, a division of Walmart, Furner leads the nation’s 7th-largest retailer that has more than 100,000 employees at nearly 600 wholesale clubs across the U.S. The division’s annual revenue in 2018 was nearly $60 billion.
Although Furner spent most of his 20-minute speech talking up the importance of Arkansas to Walmart’s operations, culture and history, he briefly offered details of how Sam’s Club operations have been revamped companywide in his two-year stint as CEO. The key focus for Sam’s Club, he said, has been using technology to reconnect with its customer base in order to improve its operational and financial results.
“The reason we have had the results … is that we’ve had a very keen focus on one particular target: And that is a family who lives in the suburbs with a slightly elevated income nationally of $75,000 to $125,000 a year, and we we’ve really focused on serving their every need through product, price and to the services we offer,” he said.
He added that unlike Walmart Stores, Sam’s Club retail operations are only a break-even proposition. He said the wholesale division makes its profits instead through membership fees, income and revenue from getting customers to visit their local clubs.
“We are laser focused on quality, on value and exceeding our members’ expectations,” he said.
Near the end of his speech, Furner played an upbeat video message that highlighted Sam’s Club operations across the U.S. Afterward, he told the Little Rock business community that the goal of the division is to eliminate friction for its customers and its associates and to enable people to accomplish what they want and to save time.
“And time is one of the most important things that we think about today when we consider what is valuable to the consumer and people who come to work for us,” Furner said.
Pivoting back to the technology theme, Furner said the Bentonville retailer is just as much a tech firm as it is a consumer goods retailer. He said Sam’s Club now has dedicated technology teams in Bentonville, Dallas, San Francisco, China and India that solely focus on looking for innovative ways to improve operations and make the company run more efficiently.
In Arkansas, Furner said Walmart is always investing in technologies and building relationships across the state in such fields as data analytics, e-commerce, merchandising, sustainability, supply chain and people leadership. He directly thanked Gov. Hutchinson for supporting STEM education and computer coding at Arkansas schools across the state.
Not mentioning the proposed $97 million tax package laid out later Wednesday by Gov. Hutchinson to cut the state’s marginal tax rate and another proposal in the pipeline to collect sales taxes on online retailers and Walmart rivals such as Amazon and Overstock.com, Furner said state leaders should do whatever is necessary to make Arkansas competitive with surrounding states.
“The changes in the tax code can help [Arkansas] grow and attract new businesses to the state just like our neighbors, so we are obviously concerned about the fairness in the sales tax and that brick-and-mortar and online retailers are all treated the same,” he said.
Earlier at the AEDC Foundation’s annual luncheon, Gov. Hutchinson briefly mentioned his plans to unveil his tax cut plan. He also made a surprise announcement that he was donating $200,000 in leftover inaugural funds to the foundation, which supports the Arkansas Department of Economic Development and other Arkansas programs to advance economic development efforts across the state.