Retail is a detailed business, and even though online sales growth is eclipsing brick-and-mortar, the physical store has likely never been more important, according to Andy Wilson, retired Walmart executive.
Wilson regularly walks stores for his own enjoyment as well as to provide insights to suppliers and others doing business with Walmart.
“Walking a Walmart Supercenter never gets old,” Wilson said during a recent walk he made in Fayetteville. “If you want to know your business well, you have to read your stores, and that is exactly what Sam Walton did.”
Wilson said walking a store is what retailers do. He spent many years traveling with Walton doing just that, walking not only Walmart stores, but also the stores of the company’s closest competitors.
“We could spend a half-hour outside the [Walmart] store, driving around back and checking for cleanliness and ensuring trucks could easily get to the back door,” Wilson said. “He would often ring the back doorbell and then see how long it took for an associate to answer. This was his way of making sure truckers didn’t have to wait when they pulled into the lot. He knew this was a complaint made by truckers, and that is how he solved the issue.”
Wilson said every store visit included plenty of time to talk with employees, and Walton would first stop at the front of the store to see how many people were in line and how many checkers were attending those needs. Walking a store is also reading a store, and to do that right, executives have to talk with employees and customers, Wilson said.
Though Walmart stores have changed significantly since Walton toured them personally, Wilson said stores are regularly walked by top company executives in much the same fashion. Walmart U.S. CEO Greg Foran spends time on the road and recently said he’s toured hundreds of stores across the country in his three-year tenure. Foran said he can tell how profitable a Supercenter is by how the front of the store looks and how efficiently the front end is working. Wilson said there have been big changes at the front of stores with the addition of self-checkout corrals and fewer manned stations.
“Walmart’s move to self-checkout was a good one,” Wilson said. “Over time, Walmart has improved the process. And as we look across the store, we see many age demographics using the self-check-out, which indicates they have accepted the change.”
Linda, the employee overseeing the self-checkout corral during the Fayetteville Supercenter tour, has accepted more responsibility and is able to help more people in her new role, Wilson said.
“Critics will say self-checkout eliminates jobs, but they miss the fact that Linda has the opportunity to take on more responsibility in this role, and it’s a good opportunity for advancement,” Wilson said. “As we walk the store, we see much of the labor has shifted away from the front, but other jobs have been created, like the personal shopper.”
Wilson said the fresh produce and bakery departments at the front of the store are traffic drivers. He pointed to the “manager’s special” signage across the fresh produce aisles and said the yellow signage indicates a price match against Aldi, which is left at the discretion of store management.
He said the store was clean and had the appropriate seasonal feel with summer items prominently displayed along action alley under giant American and Arkansas flags running front to the back of the store down the main side aisle to the left of grocery.
In the frozen aisle, Wilson stopped to chat with Jeremy Miller, a 30-year Walmart employee, who is now a personal shopper picking orders made through Walmart Grocery Pickup & Delivery. Miller said he loves the job, and he picks eight orders at a time, following the path outlined for him on his electronic device. He has held many other jobs in his time at Walmart, most recently department manager. Miller said the ability to shop all day on behalf of customers is something he enjoys, and it has given him the opportunity to learn the fresh grocery business after years of working in general merchandise.
Moving through the store, Wilson spotted some out-of-stocks in health and beauty and said that was something Walton always looked for during a store walk. When an out-of-stock item was found, Wilson said Walton would likely call for the department manager and try to get to the root of why the shelf was empty.
“We can’t sell it if we don’t have it, and being in-stock is a must,” Wilson said. “Sam walked into the store with a tape recorder, and he would record any out-of-stock he saw. Those recordings would be transcribed that evening, and he expected an answer the following day.”
Walking toward the back of the store, Wilson again pointed to the way the store was merchandised. He said the end cap displays feature two items that go together such as salad dressing and croutons or Fritos corn chips and canned chili. In the freezer case facing action alley at the front of the store, there was ice cream, frozen burger patties and crinkle-cut fries. Within arm’s length, there was a display of ketchup, mustard, hamburger buns and charcoal.
“Sam was a merchant, and he taught everyone who worked for him to think like a merchant,” Wilson said. “As I walk this store today, I am sure Sam would be pleased with the way products are presented in such a way to save steps as well as money.”
He pointed to several store displays that promoted VPIs — value-producing items. Department managers and store employees are encouraged to research their favorite item and figure out how much they can sell at a promotional price to turn a big profit. Wilson said this was Sam’s way of teaching employees how to take calculated risks, which a good merchant has to do all the time.
“Sam would be so happy to see all of the VPI displays around the store because that shows the associates are passionate and learning how to be good merchants,” Wilson said.
Aside from being a great merchant, Wilson said Walton was a keen judge of talent, which he demonstrated in hiring David Glass — a grocery veteran he tasked with leading the company into the future as Walton stepped down as CEO in 1988.
Glass was responsible for developing Walmart’s Supercenter concept, which has become a cash cow for the retail giant to this day. Glass, now the owner of the Kansas City Royals, said in an interview last year with the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal he still enjoys walking stores on occasion when he’s traveling, even though he’s been out of day-to-day retail for 20 years. Glass, like Wilson, said walking stores gets into your blood.