Any discussion of the future of retail—or how we work—has to include Walmart. As of 2017, 90 percent of the US population lived within 10 miles of a Walmart store; with 11,766 locations worldwide and $514 billion in annual revenues, the discount store also has the distinction of being the largest private employer in the United States, with 1.5 million workers (2.2 million worldwide).
But that size and dominance doesn’t make Walmart immune to pressures faced by any other retail operation. In the second-year Harvard Business School course Managing the Future of Work, Professor William Kerr explores how technology and demographics are changing the way companies like Walmart, and their workers, operate.
“The pace of change in the retail sector is truly extraordinary,” says Kerr, the D’Arbeloff Professor of Business Administration and co-director of Harvard’s Managing the Future of Work initiative. “That requires a lot of reskilling of employees and hard choices, in an uncertain environment, in terms of how to deploy capital.”
“This digital transformation creates new jobs, but, more important, it changes the nature of jobs, even entry-level ones.”
Kerr captures that dilemma by detailing the scope of Walmart’s operations and current strategies in the case “Walmart’s Workforce of the Future.” Published in April, it offers an overview of the considerable investments the retail giant is making in its e-commerce infrastructure, in its employee training and support, and in technological innovations such as robot workers and in-house incubators.
Walmart fights a revenue drop
The case details how the rise of ecommerce (and the success of Amazon in particular) affected Walmart’s discount stores (which sell general merchandise but limited grocery items), resulting in a decrease in annual revenue at those stores from $142.5 billion in 2009 to 97.7 billion in 2018. During the same time period, revenue at Walmart’s “supercenters” (larger stores that also sell groceries and often include services such as eye care, beauty salons, and photo studios) increased by 16 percent, from $409.9 billion to $476.2 billion. (Walmart closed 2,214 discount stores or converted them into other formats from 1993 to 2018, with 2,576 supercenters opening during that time.)
In addition to increasing Walmart’s supercenter footprint, CEO Doug McMillon’s omnichannel strategy focuses on a seamless approach to the customer experience, with an emphasis on employee training and improved ecommerce and automation technology, both on the floor and in back office roles.
One foundational move to beef up its technology was Walmart’s $3.3 billion acquisition of online retailer Jet.com in 2016, an investment that immediately improved its ecommerce infrastructure. Walmart has also piloted and invested in robots to perform a variety of functions, from unloading trucks to scrubbing floors to scanning shelves and bringing items out of storage for curbside delivery orders. But public statements by senior executives made it clear that Walmart was equally committed to the complex, costly effort required to train its human workers.
“I want to be clear that we don’t believe technology is the answer to everything,” McMillon stated in a 2017 annual shareholder meeting. “The secret to success will always be our people. … It will be our humanity that drives our creativity, powers our competitive spirit, and keeps us out in front.”
Technology changes the nature of work
But at the same meeting, McMillon also acknowledged how technology changes the nature of work itself, a perspective echoed by Walmart Chief Sustainability Officer and Walmart Foundation President Kathleen McLaughlin. “…we’re now a tech company as much as a retail company,” Mc Laughlin said. “This digital transformation creates new jobs, but, more important, it changes the nature of jobs, even entry-level ones.”
Those demands require more of workers—and an equivalent commitment to re-skilling and compensation. In the case, Kerr cites Walmart’s investments in wages and training for employees of $1.2 billion and $1.5 billion in 2015 and 2016—part of a move that boosted starting pay for frontline associates from $9 per hour in 2015 to $10 in 2016 (it hit $11 per hour in early 2018). Yet in 2015, announcement of a wage increase resulted in a share price drop the following day of 10 percent, on news that the increase would cut earnings per share by 6 to 12 percent in 2016. It’s a dynamic that lays bare for MBA students the consequences of senior leadership’s choices, says Kerr.
“It’s easy to be critical and say that Walmart should be doing more, but when students review the company’s actions over the past five years, they have to confront the fact that every time the minimum wage went up, the stock price went down—and meanwhile, competitors have better margins.”
The case also outlines Walmart’s approach to training its workers, including its focus on building long-term, transferable skills through efforts such as Pathways, a program that teaches associates about the retail business model, explains the “why” behind the work they’re asked to do, and helps develop the soft skills that are useful in any field. Workers who completed the program received a raise and had increased job opportunities; however, many complained that it lacked clarity and that it took too long to move through the various modules. While Walmart planned for 500,000 employees to go through Pathways in 2016, the initial rollout was considerably lower; as a result, Walmart needed to revamp some parts of the program to speed up its completion rate. (Its Academies program, focused on training and empowering hourly supervisors to directly manage team members, faced similar challenges.)
In another move to build a more skilled, educated workforce, Walmart introduced a program in 2018 that offered workers the opportunity to enroll in online degree programs for $1 a day in business, technology, and supply chain management at three different universities; in June 2019, the program expanded to six universities and 14 areas of study, including cybersecurity and computer science. Widely hailed in the press for the opportunity it offers workers to graduate from college debt-free, the program has seen 7,500 employee enrollments in its first year.
“There’s so much to unpack in the choices that Walmart is making,” Kerr says, remarking that management has also introduced virtual reality goggles to train employees as well as an app, Spark City, that uses a game-type simulation to teach workers about store processes and customer service. Walmart has even crossed over with the gig economy by partnering with platforms including DoorDash, Postmates, Uber, and Lyft for package and grocery delivery.
‘You’re the CEO of Walmart’
So, is Walmart making the right investments for its future? “We spend a lot of time in conversation in this class,” says Kerr. “I’ll say, ‘You’re the CEO of Walmart. What would you have done differently? In 2030, what will your workforce look like? How much of your sales will be in-store, and how much online?
“An early indication of the uncertainty of the future is that, with a bunch of smart MBAs, we had a wide, wide range of opinions as to what the future looks like. From some putting all their chips on ecommerce to others who see Walmart as having a powerful position, particularly in more rural areas, where it can be the one place you go to get your prescriptions, do your shopping, and pick up your ecommerce packages—so building on that, rather than trying to become Amazon.”
Analysts generally give Walmart strong marks for how its investments in technology and training have set it up to compete.
“The progress that they’ve made and the strength they still possess has been working out for them to a good degree,” says Kerr. But it’s too soon to tell whether they have established themselves in a way that will allow them to truly excel. “That’s where the jury is still out. They are still defining the Walmart of the future.”
Date: July 10, 2019
Source: Harvard Business School