The Supply Side: Lessons learned from walking a Walmart store

by Kim Souza ([email protected]) 1,635 views 

In his memoir, Walmart founder Sam Walton noted that the customer was the most important person in the business. He spent hours each week walking around his stores, talking to customers and employees to get feedback so he could improve the shopping experience.

But he also looked at how the store was stocked, how smoothly customers were moved through the checkout lane, and the cleanliness of the restrooms and store. According to Scott Benedict, a partner with retail consulting firm McMillanDoolittle and a former Walmart executive, the parking lot area also was to be clean, and carts were to be picked up and returned to the store regularly.

A recent store walk with Benedict at Walmart Store No. 4108 in Springdale revealed a well-stocked grocery store. The store was clean, and the cart area also was well stocked. Benedict said Walton would likely applaud the store remodel that is more engaging with customers.

While e-commerce was not around during Walton’s reign, insiders like retired Walmart executive Andy Wilson believe Walton would have embraced the shopping model and been one of the first to buy into omnichannel. Wilson said one lesson Walton always preached was the importance of change and moving with the times. He also believed in the importance of trying new things. Walton experimented with formats, displays and merchandise offerings over the years. Wilson said Walton understood the importance of failure en route to future success.

“Sam also knew the heartbeat and pulse of the company was out in the stores,” Wilson said. “He spent a lot of time in his stores and those of his competitors ensuring that shopper needs were met.”

Inside Store No. 4108, Benedict said Walton would applaud the revenue-producing displays in toys, pets and electronics. The store redesign allowed for shorter aisles for toys and pets. More aisles equate to more end-cap displays and opportunities for suppliers to buy that space.

LEGO has invested in the new toy department, which features interactive building displays, a LEGO statue of a baseball player and an interactive LEGO Friends camera display to entertain shoppers. Benedict said the toy department redesign feels more like a toy store, which should appeal to kids and their parents.

Benedict said the department setup in the apparel section looked more like a department store than a discount big box. The retail giant has also added the Chaps brand in men’s clothing, Reebok in activewear, designer-inspired brands in women’s wear, and juniors, which give the perception that Walmart is a place to buy fashionable apparel, not just socks and basics.

“Walmart has also upped their apparel assortment, at least in the newer remodeled stores. The retailer has also said apparel sales are higher in the remodeled supercenters,” Benedict said.

Wilson said Walton would embrace Walmart’s store-in-a-store concept in some of its supercenter remodels. He said Walton spoke of the “shop” concept many years ago and saw it as a practical display of specific merchandise.

Walmart has upped its bicycle game in the Springdale store with a large display of electric bicycles for mountain and commuter biking. Ranging from $598 to $698, the high-end ticket items depart from the traditional first-bike strategy the retailer had for decades. The biking station has an air pump station, and a QR code prompts shoppers to check out more e-bike inventory online.

Benedict said the high-end bicycle display makes sense for Northwest Arkansas, given it’s a mountain biking destination, and the retailer doesn’t have to sell many at that price point. Wilson said that is part of Walton’s store-of-the-community concept.

Store No. 4108 also revealed an opportunity to drive more in-store advertising revenue. Nearly every department in the general merchandise section allowed screens that showed revolving product ads, including Hewlett Packard, Pedigree, Blue Buffalo pet food, Apple, Earth’s Best baby food products, Sony, and an Olivia Rodrigo vinyl release.

Walmart reported at year-end that its advertising business, Walmart Connect, grew revenue to $3.16 billion last year and has the potential to exceed $6 billion by 2025. Benedict and Wilson agreed that Walton would appreciate this effort to capture advertising revenue.

The Northwest Arkansas Business Journal recently asked Walmart CEO Doug McMillon what Walton might think of the modern stores. He said Walton would love the store pickup option and employee education benefits. But he said Walton might pause at first glance with Walmart Connect, but then he would see the benefit of working with suppliers to drive more sales that benefit both parties.

The tradition of walking stores continues with McMillon and his senior operations leadership, who regularly post photos of the stores they visit each week on social media. Wilson said Walmart’s executive leaders are following the plays called by Walton more than 50 years ago by being out in the stores each week to see what is working and what’s not. However, they also visit employees in break rooms and around the store to identify talent suitable for promotion. He said that is much like Walton did in the early days.

Another relatively new feature at some Walmart locations is health clinics next to the pharmacy. Walmart continues to experiment with offering medical and dental care in select locations, like Store No. 4108 in Springdale and Store No. 1 in Rogers.

Wilson said Walton would likely support the expansion into healthcare. He said Walton would have tested the concept first, then made the necessary adjustments to make the enterprise profitable before rolling out more clinics.

“Sam would love to see Walmart offering affordable primary healthcare to solve customers’ needs,” Wilson said.

One last lesson Walton taught was visible in Store No. 4108. After moving to self-check areas on each end of the store to save on in-store labor who were fulfilling online orders during the pandemic, Walmart has added eight manned checkout lanes between the two self-check stations. Walmart has said the checkout lanes with cashiers were returned in most stores to reduce theft and because customers asked for them.

Wilson said that is the perfect example of Walmart trying something new, going too far, then dialing it back to the appropriate level.

Editor’s note: The Supply Side section of Talk Business & Politics focuses on the companies, organizations, issues and individuals engaged in providing products and services to retailers. The Supply Side is managed by Talk Business & Politics and sponsored by Firebend.