This Thanksgiving, amid the commercials announcing the beginning of the holiday season, Walmart (NYSE:WMT) took a different track with its spot titled Holiday Traffic. In the commercial, Walmart plays up its newly instituted "checkout promise" to would be shoppers. Reported by The Wall Street Journal early this year, the commercial promises to "open more checkout lanes than ever before" from 12 p.m.-6 p.m. on weekends.
And although the commercial uses ambiguous language, on its blog Walmart is certainly more direct:
Starting with the weekend after Black Friday and continuing each weekend through the final weekdays leading into Christmas, all of our registers will be open during peak shopping hours at our Supercenters and other stores that offer general merchandise like electronics, apparel, and toys. Customers can expect to find self-checkouts open and a cashier in every lane.
Although later the company added that unforeseen circumstances may prevent every front-end register from being open, this is still a strong commitment from Walmart.
This is huge for Walmart
For those following Walmart, this is an important development. The issue for Walmart fans and investors hasn't been its pricing -- the company is still one of the lowest-cost retailers -- but rather how poor store execution has been. What once was a clean, well-stocked retailer with quick and efficient checkout lanes is now struggling in those areas. Earlier this year, the company's executives mentioned it lost out on $3 billion due to items not being on the shelves when consumers needed them.
Recently, The New York Times uncovered an urgent memo the company sent to managers to improve performance in the "chilled and fresh" items in the dairy and produce sections by discounting items about to expire and add new stock as needed. A store manager leaked the memo to the Times due to their anger with strict staffing guidelines that many analysts, shoppers, and, apparently, managers consider too strict to perform all necessary tasks to run a retail operation.
Underinvestment in the company, but not on shareholders?
Last year, Walmart generated roughly $23.3 billion in cash from operations and $10.1 billion in free cash flow (essentially cash from operations minus investments in property and equipment). And how much did the company spend on shareholders? Well, overall the company spent $12.8 billion on dividends and share buybacks with the amount over free cash flow coming mostly from $2.1 billion of borrowed money.
Last year the company grew total revenue only 1.6% year over year as it struggled with stockouts and poor customer experience, tying inflation during that period. Essentially the company had no real growth last year. If the company can present a better shopping experience to customers in the heavily trafficked holiday season, perhaps it can reverse that trend going forward.
Win-win for all?
In the end, this program could benefit all Walmart stakeholders -- shareholders, employees, and customers. Customers could find a better overall shopping experience with fewer stockouts and a quicker checkout and employees could benefit from more staffing (read: pay) during the holiday season.
As far as shareholders are concerned, they should encourage more staffing and better employee relations. It appears Walmart is reaching the limits of its low-cost only strategy. In addition to low prices, consumers want a better shopping experience; Walmart would be wise to invest in providing it to them. In the end, shareholders need to think less about the next quarter and more about the next decade.