WalMart's been accused of bribing officials in Mexico to grow its business. But by and large, few in America seem to care. The stock fell only modestly from its highs of last week, and today the stock recovered from the drop off to the lows of February.
But WalMart is going to fail. WalMart is trying to defend and extend a horribly outdated industrial strategy.
Sam Walton opened his original five and dime stores in the rural countryside, and competed just like small retailers had done for decades. But quickly he recognized that industrialization offered the opportunity to shift the retail market. By applying industrial concepts like scale, automation and volume buying he could do for retailing what Ford and GM had done for auto manufacturing. And his strategy, designed for an industrial marketplace, worked extremely well. Like it or not, WalMart outperformed retailers still trying to compete like they had in the 1800s, and WalMart was spectacularly successful.
But today, the world has shifted again. Only WalMart is putting all its resources into trying to defend and extend its industrial era strategy, rather than modify to compete in the information age. Because its strategy doesn't work, the company keeps wandering into spectacular failures, and horrible leadership problems.
- In 2005 WalMart's Vice Chairman and a corporate Vice President tried to use the company's size to wring more out of gift card and merchandise suppliers. Both were caught and fired for fraud.
- In 2006 WalMart hired a new head of marketing to update the strategy, and improve the stores and merchandise. But upon realizing her recommendations violated the existing WalMart industrial strategy the company fired her after only a few months, and went public with character besmirching allegations that she and an ad agency executive were having an affair. Like that (even if true, which is hotly disputed) somehow mattered to the changes WalMart needed. Changes which were abruptly terminated upon firing her.
- In 2008 a WalMart employee became an invalid in a truck accident. When the employee won a lawsuit related to the accident, WalMart sued the invalid employee to return $470,000 in insurance payments made by WalMart. As if WalMart's future depended on the return of that money.
- In a cost saving move, WalMart moved its marketing group under merchandising, in order to reduce employees and the breadth of merchandise, as well as keep the company more tightly focused on its strategy.
All 3 of these incidents show a leadership team that is so entrenched in history it will do anything – anything – to keep from evolving forward. And sd that history developed it paved a pathway where it was only a very small step to paying bribes in order to open more stores in Mexico. Such bribes could easily be seen as just doing "whatever it takes" to keep defending the existing business model, extending it into new markets, even though it is at the end of its life.
It has come to light that after paying the bribes, the leadership team did about everything it could to cover them up. And that included spending millions on lobbying efforts to hopefully change the laws before anyone was caught, and possibly prosecuted. The goal was to keep the stores open, and open more. If that meant a little bribing went on, then it was best to not let people know. And instead of saying what WalMart did was wrong, change the rules so it doesn't look like it was wrong.
At WalMart right and wrong are no longer based on societal norms, they are based on whether or not it lets WalMart defend its existing business by doing more of what it wants to do.
WalMart's industrial strategy is similar to the Titanic strategy. Build a boat so big it can't sink. And if any retailer could be that big, then WalMart was it. But these scandals keep showing us that the water is increasingly full of icebergs. Each scandal points out that WalMart's strategy is harder to navigate, and is running into big problems. Even though the damage isn't visible to most of us, it is nonetheless clear to WalMart executives that doing more of the same is leading to less good results. WalMart is taking on water, and it has no solution. In their effort to prop up results executives keep doing things that are less and less ethical – sometimes even illegal – and guiding people down through all levels of management and employment to do the same.
WalMart's problems aren't unions, or city zoning councils, or women's rights and fair pay organizations. WalMart's problem is an out of date retail strategy. Consumers have a lot of options besides going to stores that look like airplane hangers, and frequently without paying a premium. There is wider selection, in attractive stores, with better quality and a better shopping experience. And beyond traditional retail, consumers can now buy almost anything 24×7 on-line, frequently at a better price than WalMart – despite its enormous and automated distribution centers and stores, with tight inventory and expense control.
But WalMart is completely unable to admit its strategy is outdated, and unwilling to make any changes. This week, amidst the scandal, WalMart rolled out its latest and greatest innovation for on-line shopping. WalMart will now allow an on-line customer to pay with cash. After placing an order on-line they can trot down to the store and pay the cash, then WalMart will recognize the order and ship the product.
Really. Now, if this is targeted at customers that are so out of the modern loop that they have no credit card, no debit card, no on-line checking capability and no Paypal account tied to checking – do you think they have a PC to place an online order? And if they did go to the local library to use a computer, why would they go pay at the store only to have the item shipped – rather than simply buy it in the store and take it home immediately?
Clearly, once again, WalMart isn't trying to change its strategy. This is an effort to extend the old WalMart, in a bizarre way, online. The company keeps trying to keep people coming into the store.
Amazingly, despite the fact that there's a 50/50 (or better) chance that the CEO and a number of WalMart execs will have to be removed from their position – and could well go to jail for Foreign Corrupt Practice Act violations – most people are unmoved. The stock has barely flinched, and option traders see the stock remaining at 55 or higher out into September. Nobody seems to believe that all these hits WalMart is taking really matters.
A famous Titanic line is "and the band played on." This refers to the band continuing to play song after song, oblivious to disaster, until the ship suddenly broke, heaved up and dove into the ocean leaving only those in life boats to survive. As the Titanic was taking on water not the captain, the officers, the crew, the passengers or those listening over the airwaves wanted to accept that the Titanic would sink.
But it did.
So how long will you hold onto WalMart shares? WalMarts growth has been declining for a decade, and even went negative in 2009. Same store sales have declined for 2 years. Scandals are now commonplace. Online retailers such as Amazon and Overstock.com are stripping out all the retail growth, leaving traditionalists in decline. WalMart may be doing better than Sears, or Best Buy, but for how long?
WalMart has no ability to stop the economic shift from an industrial to an information age. It could choose to adapt, but instead its leaders have done the opposite. The retailers now succeeding are those eschewing almost all the WalMart practices in favor of using customer information to offer what people want (out of their much wider selection) when customers want it, often at surprisingly good prices. This is the current carrying emerging retailers to better profitability – and it is the current WalMart remains intent on fighting. Even as its executives face prison.