It used to be that the typical American retailer ran scared from Walmart but those days are long over. Now the typical American retailer is running scared from Amazon. And Walmart is one of them.
Still, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon, other chain executives and a cast of entertainers came up with enough sizzle and substance to drive the blues away for a day on Friday as 14,000 people—including 6,000 employees—attended the company’s annual shareholders’ meeting in Fayetteville, Ark., which has become an iconic event in corporate America.
“We get to reimagine retail again, and that’s what we are going to do,” McMillon told shareholders of the world’s largest retailer. “There is momentum in this business. It is real. We can feel it.”
Among those helping Walmart “feel” the momentum was late-night host and British comic James Corden, who got in a few roast-like jokes at the expense of Walton family members, and pop stars Katy Perry and Nick Jonas. (Last year’s event was hosted by folksy charmer Reese Witherspoon, who taught the audience how to do the “bend and snap” move from her hit movie, Legally Blonde.)
But the “real” part of Walmart’s recovery nowadays is seen in the fact that, for the three months through April 2016, Walmart reported a US same-store sales gain of almost 1 percent while so many other US retailers were losing ground. Modest growth, but they’ll take it.
It was the seventh straight quarter of such growth, representing somewhat of a finding of its way for Walmart after several difficult years—and all the more impressive because the business backdrop remains daunting.
Walmart revenues actually declined in 2015, for the first time since it became a public company in 1970. And it continues to face tough competition from Amazon for digital sales that are eating into its brick-and-mortar business. What’s more, Walmart’s e-commerce growth has slowed for each of the past five quarters. Costs are also rising as it builds out its digital platform, upgrades stores and pays higher wages to its workers.
But led by McMillon, the company seems to have rediscovered a sense of strategic purpose, which is manifesting in a huge variety of new and expanded initiatives that, if all goes to plan, will help the once-intimidating retail giant get back up off the mat.
Take tech innovation, for example. Walmart intends to offer its mobile-payment technology, Walmart Pay, to all US stores and expand its buy online and pick up in-store service—that allows shoppers to click and collect online orders curbside—to more than 50 US markets by the end of this month.
It’s also testing home delivery of groceries in a pilot project with Uber, Lyft and Deliv; rapidly expanding into new markets for its online grocery pickup; and it’s even several months away from using drones to check warehouse inventories.
“We want to make every day easier for busy families,” McMillon explained at the meeting. “We’re connecting all the parts of Walmart into one seamless shopping experience with great stores, easy pickup, fast delivery, and apps and websites that are simple to use.”
There’s pricing, too: Walmart is trying to get back to its unparalleled leadership in that area, cutting prices on an array of products over the next few years, though it’s not releasing specifics—and even as it stocks more expensive organic meat and produce and fresh alternatives in its grocery aisles.
Just to make the point, Walmart is bringing back its “Smiley” logo — reclaiming its title as the original emoji — in stores and on TV ads after a decade, saying that about 70 percent of customers still equate the image with savings.
As Walmart CMO Tony Rogers commented in a company Q&A,
Back in the day, Smiley was the face of rollbacks. Today, he represents all low prices. Whether we’re talking about a great everyday low prices or a new rollback, Smiley’s our man… Our associates love Smiley. They share a larger purpose – advocating for our customers. For Smiley, it’s about delivering low prices. For our associates, it’s about great customer service.
Fittingly, Walmart has remained on top of the just-released annual list of Fortune 500 rankings, which compares US public companies based on their fiscal-year revenues, for the fourth year in a row.
As McMillon told shareholders on Friday, he’s looking to the company’s founder, Sam Walton, to inspire a new chapter and growth. “He said we’ll give the world an opportunity to see what it’s like to save and have a better lifestyle (and) a better life for all.”