Walmart Steps Up

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Walmart Steps Up

By Bill Schober - 10/31/2019

One benefit of walking miles of aisles to report on the path to purchase was, ironically, a heightened empathy with store personnel. I say ironic because a lot of the concepts we track, be they risers & danglers or robots & drones, are designed to outperform and thus disintermediate some folks from their jobs. I wish I had a Buffalo nickel for every time I wrote about “P-O-P as a silent sales clerk.” 

Early on, as I realized I was forced to reface almost every display for in-store images, I had two thoughts: (1) detailing an entire store must be a depressingly “Sisyphean” task for employees, and (2) an awful lot of shoppers are jerks. Joe Ricci had a gentle name for anyone who’d goof up a store display: “Retail Gnomes.” But I’m sticking with “jerk” for anyone who’d yank every toy off its peghook for kids to play with; slice open bags of rice, flour and potting soil; knock every product over for a laugh; and most despicably, go “Gallon Smashing.”  

Gallon Smashing is a YouTube “sport” where a shopper holds two gallons of milk, theatrically fake falls and splashes milk all over a store and often onto a clerk trying to help. Any human with a properly functioning soul would think about the person (very likely somebody’s mom) who’ll have to clean that up – but there you go.

And yeah, sure: All teenagers behave like a-holes from time to time. But something about this prank crosses a line for me, and I think I discovered why in a YouTube comment: “Breaking social contracts is not cool. A supermarket places a ton of trust in people with food lying around, doors wide open. All kinds of [tampering] can happen. A stunt like this erodes trust and degrades society.” 

Think about that: A social contract ... trust ... people ... society ... retail.  Kudos to Doug McMillon for putting those concepts into action when he changed Walmart’s policies regarding shoppers who openly carry guns in stores. That move, along with others like reducing e-cigarette and ammunition sales, led Business Week to dub him the “Archetype of New-Age CEO.” That feels a little hyperbolic, but clearly McMillon, along with leadership at Kroger, CVS, Wegman’s and Walgreens, saw that absent legislative action in the wake of all the post-El Paso shootings, they’d have to step up on behalf of their rattled, frontline employees and reframe the social contract. “The status quo is unacceptable,” McMillon said, even if that means offending some jerks with guns (oops, my words, not his – I meant, open-carry-extremist shoppers).  

Good retailers understand a store’s special place within the fabric of society. Jody Kalmbach, VP, digital experience, at Kroger, summed this up beautifully earlier this year: “I say to the team all the time: ‘This is about food; this is about health; this is about how we come together as a family.’ To be successful in this space, you have to have the passion.” 

Virtually every retailer we’ve ever had on stage at our events has channeled some variation on this theme, and I’m going to go out on a limb and bet that Alyssa Raine, acting CMO & divisional VP, brand marketing, at Walgreens, will do the same later this month at P2PX. 

Granted, it’s a safe bet as the title of her presentation, “Combining Technology and the Human Touch to Improve the Customer Experience,” is something of a tip-off. See you there.

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