Published on: June 8, 2009BENTONVILLE, Arkansas - The Walmart annual meeting, as usual, featured more than its share of star power to keep the crowd of 16,000 people entertained.
Ben Stiller hosted, and took note of the 7 am start time, saying, “They’re still sleeping over at Target.”
There were musical performances by Miley Cyrus (who last week announced that she’d be working with Walmart to develop an exclusive line of budget clothing for girls), Smokey Robinson (who magically seems to have smoother skin than people half his age), and “American Idol” winner/Arkansas native Kris Allen, who performed three songs and noted that when he’d arrived in Los Angeles, he hadn’t seen any Walmarts and couldn’t figure out where people bought stuff. (The notoriously straight-laced folks at Walmart were probably glad that the somewhat less wholesome Adam Lambert didn’t win “Idol”; inviting him might have been problematic.)
Even and old and paunchy Gene Simmons of Kiss was there (sans makeup), though he never got anywhere near the stage and simply seemed to be wandering the floor of the Bud Walton Arena at the University of Arkansas getting a lot of attention from young and not-so-young women.
Michael Jordan, the legendary Chicago Bulls player, showed up on stage to chat with Walmart executive vice president Susan Chambers about the importance of teamwork in any environment – from the basketball court to the sales floor of a supercenter.
There were cheerleaders and marching bands and dancers galore, punctuating the moments when associates from Walmart banners round the world testified to the might and power of their employer. Indeed, “testified” may be precisely the right word, since the proceedings at some moments resembled nothing so much as a very enthusiastic revival meeting. Except, of course, when the contingent from Walmart’s Chile operations got vocal – which was often – and it seemed more like a World Cup match.
The meeting came at a good time for Walmart – sales, profits and market share are up as the nation and the world continue to grapple with an economic recession that gives consumers less money to spend, and apparently a greater impulse to spend what they have at a store that has turned “save money, live better” into a mantra that drew cheers from the audience every time it was uttered on the stage. Which was often.
It also is a time when Walmart has been working to develop stores that will appeal to more than just its traditional customer, but rather has wide and less cluttered aisles and a more targeted selection with stronger fresh food sections where appropriate. "Our customers will stay with us when this economy turns around. I promise you that," Mike Duke, celebrating the first annual meeting since his ascension to the CEO position, told the crowd.
Duke added, "I do believe that this economic crisis worldwide has brought a fundamental shift in consumer behavior. There is a 'new normal,' in which people want to save money and are getting smarter about saving money.” But, "This is not a time to slow down and take comfort in our success … We need to be obsessed with understanding customers however they shop, whether it's on a mobile phone, a laptop, or in a local store … We have to conduct ourselves not as a giant but as a nimble and innovative competitor in every market.”
• In the media Q&A following the annual meeting, company vice chairman Eduardo Castro-Wright said that the company had considered – and would continue to consider – eliminating tobacco products from its stores. He said that “first and foremost, we serve customers” and sell them what they want, but acknowledged that selling tobacco seems at odds with Walmart’s increased emphasis on health. “It is an issue we debate constantly,” he said.
• Castro-Wright also said that there are no plans to expand the company’s small-store Marketside concept. At this point in time, there has been “a protraction in demand,” and he said that the company would not be “accelerating the effort until we are in a better position to make a decision.”
• Leslie Dach, executive vice president of corporate affairs and government relations, said at the same press conference that he believes at this point that the proposed Employee Free Choice Act – which would make it easier for unions to get certified by removing the requirement of a secret ballot election by employees – will not get passed by Congress. “A lot of members of the Senate have come to recognize the flaws in the bill,” he said, and added that it has become increasingly clear that “the arbitrary provisions of the bill will hurt the economy … I think it is going to be difficult for them to find the support that they need.”
• Asked whether he shared former CEO Lee Scott’s passion for sustainability, new CEO Mike Duke said, “Sustainability was personal for Lee, but it also is personal for me. And, it is personal for out 2.2 million associates.” Duke added that it has been amply proven that “sustainability has been good for business … I am very, very committed to leadership.”
• Shareholder votes announced at the meeting defeated six shareholder proposals, including one to combat gender discrimination and another to more closely align executive pay with performance.
• Walmart also announced a new program to repurchase $15 billion of its shares, a plan that replaces a two-year-old $15 billion repurchase plan that had bought $11.6 billion in stock.
• Duke also spoke about a President's Global Council of Women Leaders created by the company, designed to develop more women in leadership positions at a company largely run by men. It is made up of 14 members representing various markets in which Walmart operates, and Duke said that he is “not satisfied” with diversity efforts at the company that have taken place up to this point.
• Company chairman Rob Walton, along with his sister Alice, and brother Jim, presented this year's Sam M. Walton Entrepreneur Award to Rick Webb, senior vice president for innovation at Walmart, recognizing “outstanding retail leadership and entrepreneurial spirit.”
FYI…to read last Friday's exclusive “Bentonville Blog I,”:
- KC's View:
- Just some final random musings compiled on the plane while flying home from Bentonville…
• At what point, I wonder, will Michael Jordan cease to have the kind of celebrity status that he currently enjoys? Sure, most people today still remember his basketball prowess…but at some point he’s going to be better known as the guy in the underwear commercials. It’s inevitable. And I’m just wondering when that will be.
• One of the performers at the meeting was a Latin singer named Paulina Rubio, who looked like Sue Lyons in “Lolita,” complete with heart-shaped sunglasses, as images of bar codes and oranges flashed on the screen behind her. This was a little surprising, because I didn’t think that the “Lolita” image was what Walmart was going for.
• I may be wrong on this, but it looked to me that former Walmart CEO Lee Scott’s hair is longer and curlier since he stepped down.