Walmart goes on offense

Walmart goes on offense

Walmart is a phenomenon with an economic impact that is often taken for granted, so I felt glad to be included in a panel discussion on retailing Friday at the company’s recently renovated Sardis Road store in east Charlotte.

It was part of the giant company’s outreach to tell its story, a big change from its history of avoiding publicity. One can’t blame them because Walmart’s success in crushing its rivals, reliance on imported goods and nonunion status long made it an easy target of criticism by other retailers, protectionists and union organizers. Much of that criticism was amplified in the press, which suffered as Walmart’s success knocked out so many local businesses that bought print and broadcast advertising.

But now Walmart is threatened by Seattle-based Amazon, which is affecting virtually every retailer with its fast, online delivery programs. Once invincible Walmart now faces off against currently invincible Amazon. Its shares have more than quadrupled in the last five years, compared with Walmart’s 21% increase. The stock market value of Amazon  is almost double Walmart, reflecting investors’ views that online sales will make  brick-and-mortar stores less relevant.

Not going to happen, according to Kate Mora, the Charlotte-based regional general manager whose territory covers about 90 stores, mostly in North Carolina. She and her colleagues ticked off a dozen-plus programs that Walmart is offering that match or exceed Amazon or any other retailer. The efforts include online ordering, sales alerts, improved grocery pickup operations, wider aisles, higher pay and better worker training. A sign of Walmart’s success in changing with the times, she says, is a 69% increase in online sales in the most recent quarter.

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It’s a battle worth watching because of Walmart’s monstrous impact. Just in North Carolina, the company employs about 58,000 people and operates 218 stores, including 142 super centers and 24 Sam’s Club warehouse stores, according to a company website. Hourly store workers earn about $14 on average, while assistant store managers start at about $48,000 a year. It also has four distribution centers, including a new one near Mebane that handles mostly fresh food products. The best performing individual stores employ as many as 400 people and produce annual sales topping $70 million.

Walmart’s importance in North Carolina ramped up in the last year after the company opened its second U.S. support services office at a southwest Charlotte office park. About 1,100 accountants and financial analysts work at the site, handling much of the invoicing and paper shuffling that previously occurred inside stores. It complements a similar center at the Bentonville, Ark. headquarters.

Walmart didn’t ask for or receive government incentives for the project, unlike many other giant corporations. Indeed, with so many workers, so much tax base and as a fixture in so many communities, Walmart in 2017 may look a lot more civic-minded than Amazon, which is also expanding rapidly, but won’t ever employ 58,000 North Carolinians.

(Other members of the panel, three guys who know much more about retailing, were Nathan Sloan, Principal, Deloitte Consulting, US Human Capital leader for the Retail and Wholesale Distribution sector; Roger Beahm, WestRock Executive Director, Center for Retail Innovation, Wake Forest University School of Business, and Chris Hemans, Director of Retail for Charlotte Center City Partners.)

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