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Note:  This post was originally published on 10/2. We are re-publishing in advance of this week's WMT analyst event taking place 10/12-10/13.

Wal-Mart’s analyst day is likely to yield less information about merchandising strategy and vendor pricing than in years past – at the precise time it’s needed most.  Furthermore, a smaller format urban location is likely to be more of a test than anything else- at least for now. There are simply too many new executives in new roles to have made any tangible progress in the effort to reverse the negative same store sales trend. 

Wal-Mart is set to host its 17th annual investor/analyst meeting in Bentonville on October 12th and 13th and this year is no different than year’s past. There’s much speculation brewing about what the world’s largest retailer is going to say and reveal.  This year’s topic du jour likely centers around two main areas, domestic store growth in the form a smaller, urban concept and a revamped merchandising strategy.  The former speculation arises out of ominous comments made from newly appointed Wal-Mart U.S CEO Bill Simon at a recent investor conference. 

Recall that Simon was quoted as saying, “We have lots of learnings around the world from Wal-Mart in small formats. Our group in Mexico and Central America, Latin America operates small formats very well and very profitably, and we are going to beg, borrow, steal and learn from them as quickly as we can, because it is important for our urban strategy.”   This in turn has led the media and some on the Street to expect a multi-hundred unit rollout of some convenience/grocery/dollar store hybrid in urban centers across the country.  We do not believe this will be the case.  While it possible that some new, smaller format (i.e 20k feet or less) will be announced, we believe it will only be in the context of a test or prototype.  History reminds us that both the Supercenter and Neighborhood Market were tested for several years before Wal-Mart made a full commitment to the format.  In fact, the Neighborhood Market is still more of a test than a viable growth contributor for the company.  We believe it is overly optimistic to expect an acceleration in U.S square footage growth in the near-term driven by a new and yet unnamed small store format.

Secondly on the topic of merchandising.  There is no question that Wal-Mart’s negative same store sales are in some part suffering from its unsuccessful efforts to drive purchases of non-consumable goods.  The leadership at the company has been in flux since June and has still yet to settle into their new roles.  Just this week alone, a CFO transition was announced, replacing a 10 year veteran with an internal promotion.  The names and faces of the executives coming and going is largely irrelevant in the near-term.  It’s not who is moving up and who is moving out, but rather that the world’s largest retailer is seemingly scrambling to make leadership changes in an effort to reverse the negative trend.  Change can be good, but it can also be unsettling in the near-term.  We do not believe that WMT will show (or convince) the Street that its merchandising strategy is fully baked and working at its meeting in Arkansas.  There are simply too many new faces in new roles for one to put forth a credible and cohesive strategy on such short notice.  Furthermore, it is highly unlikely that the suppliers and manufacturers could even produce enough product to meet WMT’s demands in such a short time before the holiday shopping season approaches.  If there is one thing we know, retailers of all sizes do not use the November/December time frame for taking big risks or making big, unproven changes.  Therefore, we’d expect the meeting to be centered on the “long-term”. Changes made in the next six months will impact the subsequent year.  We anticipate that this will be a long, drawn out process and one that still remains unproven.

Take a look at the following major management changes that have taken place since June alone:

  • 9/29- CFO promotion announced.  Former CFO, Tom Schowe, leaving company after 10 years.
  • 9/3- U.S CEO Bill Simon announces Chief Merchant position will not be filled.  Instead the company will operate with four merchants reporting to Simon.  Each one is responsible for a particular category.
  • 7/3- Chief Merchant John Fleming resigns a few days after new U.S. leadership is announced.  Role initially filled by two merchants on an interim basis.  Eventually each of these merchants is named to the team of four that replace Fleming on a permanent basis.
  • 6/29- Bill Simon, former COO of U.S, named to U.S. CEO role.  Replaces Eduardo Castro Wright who remains Vice Chairman and becomes head of Global.com and supply chain.  Castro Wright relocates to California.  COO role remains vacant.
  • 6/9- EVP/Corporate Secretary retires.  Position is filled by General Counsel, who assumes the additional role.   Ethics and global security responsibilities attached to Secretary role are reassigned within the organization.

The chronology above does not even scratch the surface of all the tertiary role changes within the U.S organization.  The bottom line here is that change is surely underway led primarily by people in new roles and an underlying approach which leaves nothing sacred.  For those expecting any major changes in top or bottom line results in the near to intermediate term, we caution that this is highly unlikely.  There simply has not been enough time yet for which the new team could have crafted and executed a revised merchandising strategy.  At best we believe this is 6 months out – but even then we need flawless execution.  So the many people that will attend the meeting looking for derivative plays out of suppliers will be also be disappointed. The same goes for insight on Wal Mart’s stance on passing through raw materials costs to customers and vendors. Expect less information than in the past (at the precise time when it is needed most). In the near-term those expecting some major announcements out of the investment meeting are also likely to be disappointed.  The strategy is still not defined, nor are the architects fully in place.

Eric Levine

Director