Wal-Mart Woes: Down Sales Figures Equal Bad Economy or Bad Business?

    

 Wal-Mart is no stranger to headlines in recent years from low wages paid to workers, to uncovered discrimination of women applying for management positions, striking workers, even the slightly older Dateline feature where the wife of one Wal-Mart employee reached her insurance cap and was denied all kinds of needed care services that when you crunched the numbers would have cost every Wal-Mart employee in that area an extra 25 cents, which they stated they gladly would have paid, forfeited upon hearing the woman’s plight. But their latest blunder bears the marks of a self-made mess of a different kind; this time involving leaked e-mails showing CEO’s in a panic about sales figures that were apparently particularly abysmal. Things only got worse once the e-mails were made public dropping Wal-Mart stock 7%, adding to their potential financial problems. However anyone who has taken a look at their local Wal-Mart lately, myself included, may find the reason for their sales figure issues isn’t less money in the consumers’ pockets or that their customer base consists of the lower middle class, poor people who are the first to be effected by even slight economic changes, their numbers aren’t a barometer of a sales decline to hit the rest of the economy at a later date as part of some chain reaction, nor is it a response to Wal-Mart’s string of bad press. And while yes, there is a cultural backlash against Wal-Mart, it has almost become cliché to hate them, embarrassing to admit shopping there; something far more generic is likely in play, a complete failure to provide what the customer wants.

 http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/video/walmart-stock-drops-internal-emails-leaked-18519018

For example walking into your local Wal-Mart you never know if they are going to have the product you are looking from week to week, month to month; store aisles are punctuated with bare spots where product should be, indicating at least a stocking problem at that store, at most a supply problem, and the shelf housing item X may stay bare for weeks on end. Wal-Mart’s generic Great Value brand of hash brown patties and their chicken breast tenderloins commonly suffer from this phenomenon as well as cheaper brands like Equate hand soap and antibacterial wipes in specific scents. Following literally months of going without their favorite burritos, the customer looking for them finally asked a stock person where they were to be told the store was having a problem with their burrito supplier, a comment which the potential buyer understood little, except they weren’t getting what they wanted again today. It took another month or two before the persons brand and type of burrito were available, causing the person to buy twice as many as they normally would because they now did not know if they could consistently count on them being there, happenings that can have a negative impact on people’s buying habits when they live paycheck to paycheck, only spend whatever money they have in their pockets, who will buy less variety of items, ultimately decide to shop elsewhere should they find another store to be more reliable. Coupled with that drain on their business is the appearance of the store when this takes place; the frozen food section looks like someone’s 3 year old was let loose behind the doors. In addition to the emptiness, remaining entrées, convenience meals then become scattered pell-mell across the entire shelf; either the shelf is so full of stock when you reach for one of something more of it comes flying at you or whatever is left in a picked over shelf comes flying when you open the door, because people have so knocked things around. Elsewhere entire sections of ladies socks, underwear will be empty; of what is there, it’s obviously severely picked over, packages of either one laying on the floor, some having been opened or the plastic punctured by being trampled underfoot. Neither is Wal-Mart unfamiliar with shoppers who do so by the month either owing to being on assistance such as TANF, food stamps, WIC or traveling to a neighboring city housing a Wal-Mart supercenter from a small town without one; regardless of if shopper receive any of the above listed assistance, in the era having seen 4 dollar, nearly 5 dollar a gallon gas, monthly shopping is much more common. Still stores do not seem to keep those facts in mind when allotting space for foodstuffs in particular or when stocking any items likely to be bought in bulk, hints the aforementioned frozen food scene.                 

Demonstrating a kind of domino effect to empty shelf slots, areas that look like they have been visited by a horde of nomads, disorganization plagues many departments one customer refusing to buy anything from their music section because it is a frustrating nightmare to find anything owing to placards, placeholders noting CD’s (yes people still buy those things) by music artists may be present but that’s not what’s in the designated area. One week they’ll have an artist’s new album in the new release area; next week or next month you go to the placeholder marking albums by that artist and it isn’t there. Placeholders for popular artists are often missing or it means digging through all the selections for artist’s last name or group names under a given letter of the alphabet. Similar statements can made about the movie section; in addition to the see it one week or month gone the next irritation, large bargain bins are often used for discount items, much to the chagrin of one frequent store visitor, who noted one trying incident where they saw a sign coming into the store advertising Men in Black I&II being sold in the store prior or during the release of Men in Black III on DVD/ Blu-Ray. The problem, instead of having a display showcasing the movies advertised in the sign or next to the new release display for MIB 3, our irritated customer found them after hunting several minutes through a bargain bin almost purely by chance. Another occasion involved an individual seeing a movie in the new release section they really wanted but did not have the money for at that moment; they were unfazed considering it was a new release and therefore would be around awhile. The next week they returned to the store intent on buying said movie and not only could they not find it but the electronics sales person promptly told them they had never heard of it, after checking they even said it wasn’t in their computer; 3 weeks later returning for their usual grocery run, there they found it in the recent releases section. Patron X was shocked when they went online, never having seen a placard denoting a specific artist of interest, looking to see what selections of Tracy Chapman’s might be available only to find two books about or by the musician and none of her half a dozen music albums. Unlike particular styles of rap, hard rock or artist known for their explicit lyrics, of which Wal-Mart will only sell edited versions, there is simply nothing by this artist carried in their store or on their website; strange even for a store that sells a little of everything specializing in nothing.                 

Store remodels and reorganizations often translate into stores no longer carrying items counted on by customers, being replaced with products people don’t want to buy and harassed sales staff who are on the receiving end of customer wrath, repeatedly agreeing with the put out individual. Cases in point include, faded glory women’s socks in assorted colors, only just now making a comeback in something other than a pack of white, cream, navy and black, and in less colors than before, Xtra scentsations spring sunshine laundry detergent discontinued in one Midwestern store without explanation, once listed on their website as in store only, now completely removed from the site, obviously indicating no longer sold at all. Mead 5 star college ruled composition books are something else to disappear from that same store, even during back to school sales. Bringing us to the added concern of lackluster variety showcased glaringly in this department; Wal-Mart is strategically compared to competitors like Target, both offering affordable, popular wares, the latter focusing on cheap chic, unique items not just those wanted by the masses. One patron often seen in the former store took advantage of back to school displays, discounts and products to buy notebooks, journals and other stationery materials for both themselves and a friend who loved to write, only to find fewer and fewer choices, be unimpressed with colors, lack of college ruled notebooks, lack of choice of those without wires, 2 pocket folders same thing, ones with popular cartoons, superheroes, movies, animals hardly existent anymore. Another instance was a person looking for a package of plain black ladies brief underwear, nowhere in the store to be found; obviously it is highly unlikely manufactures of the sought after product, under many different brands would purposefully not make packages of black underwear, so why is it so hard to find?  Emphasizing a clearer key point no matter how much money a customer has in their pockets, if they can’t find anything of interest, can’t find what they need to complete a bathroom set of hand towels, bath accessories they started buying at your store, they are just going to hold on to their money, certainly not spend it with you.                    

Premium, highly desired merchandise seems to all be sold through their website at Wal-Mart.com, and, like all websites are, prone to glitches as someone trying it out for the first time, just days before black Friday, found out when a message about conflicting delivery dates kept popping up. After getting help from in store staff to order the items online, find the total with tax, any shipping charges for things that could not be retrieved through their Site to Store option, put required amount of cash on a gift card entering that as the payment method to protect their debit card information since they did not own a credit card, refusing to put the former information online for fear of everything from identity theft to tying up their bank account while potential errors were corrected and several calls by store staff to the website helpline, they were forced to abandon their order because of a site malfunction. Making things worse was the fact their friend was along with them and had to wait a good 45 minutes for this all to play out, actions that were only taken to get an early jump on Christmas shopping and obtain desired Christmas presents for said friend and her children. Multiplying complications pertaining to online orders, online vs. store options include store staff who are reluctant to help a customer order items this way even though the public use computers accessible in store are not already set to the store website, are configured differently than a standard computer so someone filling out a job application may likewise need help; once you get desired assistance the person helping you often behaves like they have never seen the webpage, don’t know how to get to the webpage from the computer system, easily get confused even when the customer brings in printouts of what they wish to purchase, don’t check delivery location landing one shoppers order in another state’s store. Missing from Wal-Mart.com, despite the option to find your local store and set it while you search, is if the item that is in stock online is also in your local store or adjacent stores present within your city; only when something is out of stock will it give you a clear item number and suggest you ask customer service at your local store if they have it. If something is out of stock online it is simply lost to the ether and they will apparently never order more, unless you wish to wait years.         

Layout and design of both building and placement of goods cause unnecessary headaches for people wanting to maneuver quickly through the store or possessing any kind of disability; clearance racks, various displays for new products, things on sale this week or advertised in prep for events like the Super bowl, routinely clog main traffic aisles forcing people to move single file, meaning a person stopping to look at something, pick up assortments of what is offered will cause a traffic jam. Secondary aisles may indeed be large for the size of the store compared to smaller mom & pop or grocery only, stores but do not accommodate peak traffic or account for extremely popular areas and are structured so you cannot get two carts down an aisle side by side again leading to the single file, traffic jam resulting in people avoiding aisles altogether. Coinciding with the above frustration is this chain of stores inane habit of not putting price information on new displays, small sales or discount areas, products that have recently been moved, forcing you to go hunt down a price scanner or a sales clerk. Tying into the lagging availability of goods, the disorganization, the chaos of store remodels, reorganizations is just how much these stores like to move their existing merchandise around; week to week month to month products without permanent spaces in the store, i.e. frozen food, are always somewhere besides the last place you picked them up. Store workers can’t possibly remember where asked after materials are now placed driving patrons further up the wall and wasting valuable time. Structural, architectural problems leave consumers in even more of a lurch; shelves, frozen food areas storewide are built and stocked for people who have Shaquille O’Neal’s reach, height instead of the average 5 foot 3 woman, never mind women do the bulk of the shopping for their households. An oversight that forces people to either use the bumper boarder to the frozen food doors as a step or chase down store staff, to use shelf edges as steps or traipse long ways away from what they want in search of store personnel to retrieve it for them. Trying to get both self and cart through clothing aisles is next to impossible and leads to bumping into racks, knocking things off of racks, severely diminishing the chance you’ll find what you’re looking for, anything you want to buy. Superstores added a McDonald’s as a feature several years ago, again with little thought to where they put it. In the Midwest it tended to be at the back of the store causing individuals, families not to know it was there if they didn’t go all through the store; during a remodel one location put it at the front of the store clearly visible upon entrance, exit, checkout, a far better location, a far better solution. But not accounted for was traffic flow or how people would choose to take advantage of the restaurant; for instance there is not enough space in the main artery aisle going past it to the money center, vision center and customer service to handle people entering who need these things before going throughout the main body of the store as well as deal with people coming out of the checkouts needing any of the listed areas/services, simply trying to exit. Decreasing space further is the lack of cart kiosk(s) at the entrance to McDonald’s where people could put their cart full of accumulated groceries while they eat lunch, dinner before/after checking out, continued shopping after eating, leaving a menagerie of carts further taking up needed.        

While courtesy, assistance and accommodation to those with disabilities is top notch alongside many experiences had in similar stores it too has profound holes that just make life all the more difficult for people already struggling. Yes they provide motorized scooters, wheelchairs and will pair store staff with a shopper to push a grocery cart or reach items upon request. However while the stores above issues listed throughout the piece are a minor annoyance, moderate aggravation to visitors with bad knees, bad backs, the elderly; it can be worse for an ambulatory, by the month shopper who needs staff to walk with them through the store and they are forced to go ascertain the price of something, find stocking personnel to get items off too tall shelves, they themselves must rifle through a bargain bin or more likely, get stopped and distracted by other shoppers who see someone who works there and bombards them with questions about where’s this, where’s that do you have such and such all leaving the original customer standing somewhere wearing themselves out, possibly forcing them to make more trips to the store spending more money on transportation not merchandise. One on one shopping assistance is absolutely necessary and appreciated yet becomes less useful if the person aiding them is only slightly taller than they are rendering them unable to reach things either, is injured or has their own trouble walking, is elderly and causes worry in lifting 24 packs of soda or other weighty food stuffs.  Fallen clothing, hangers and so forth from that area, things left on the floor in one of the pell-mell, picked over aisles may be a nuisance, an eyesore to everyday visitors completing their purchases throughout the store, but can present a real danger to an ambulatory someone using crutches or a walker. Same concept applies to narrowed aisles due to displays, end caps and corner displays can present trip hazards, as well as abandoned trollies holding to be stocked materials that were left in an aisle for whatever reason. These things matter too; an excess of them will drive said patrons from your store for their own safety.                              

An absolutely nonsensical occurrence befell one customer as the picked up their order in Site to Store; the sales person and customer struck up a conversation that eventually brought up the pervious person in line and the thing she was looking for and the store staff’s comment that not every Wal-Mart has the same items. Now that might not come as such a shock were we talking about stores in different states, different parts of the country, but no, the stores being discussed were 3 all in the same Midwestern town of roughly 110,000 people. This is perhaps the most utterly ridiculous thing Wal-Mart does; why would I want to travel halfway across town, out of my way because the Wal-Mart closest to me no longer carries something that is a staple to my shopping? I don’t and neither do most people in this era of every rising, ever changing gas prices; I shouldn’t have to go to all 3 stores in my area just to get what I need and people just won’t. Part of the appeal of their supercenter is one stop shopping; they are still the leader in the supercenter model despite competitors adding basic grocery staples to their stores. That said, if Wal-Mart wants better sales figures they are going to have to work for it, not by having every product known to man, not by changing everything they do, revamping their product line drastically, not even by getting a handle on their bad press, but by restoring consistency, by giving the customer what they want and not removing continually asked after merchandise, by having things in stock; here’s a hint if you have trouble keeping it in stock, keep finding blank spots on shelves it means the item is popular and that’s your cue to order more. They work for it by doing simple things like making traffic flow easier, putting goods in a logical flowing order and leaving them there, putting prices clearly on everything, reducing displays to let main artery aisles be aisles, not just more places to shove product in the customers face. When planning the design of new stores, remodel of old ones key things need to be kept in mind; secondary aisles should be large enough to get at minimum 2 carts down them walking side by side, shelving and apparatuses holding products should stick out the least as possible eliminating potential trip hazards and making carts easy to turn from aisle to aisle, areas for clothing should be larger allowing you to easily push a cart through while you look without knocking things off, having to shove your way through clothing or walk all the way around displays, if McDonalds’s is to be in the front of a store essentially behind the checkouts from the main body of the store, there must be a throughway aisle that does not require walking all the way around across the entrance that makes it appear you could be stealing or causes extra steps. There must be a cart kiosk and there must be extra aisle space to accommodate the scenario described in paragraph 6; shelving and frozen food sections, heights of same need to be dropped a foot to accommodate height and size of people who don’t play basketball. All of this is how you keep and expand your customer base, business 101.     

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About Natasha Sapp

Proclaiming an edgy voice of reason to America,while bringing back the common sense to social issues.

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