Can Wal-Mart Get Any Bigger?

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TED THAI FOR TIME

More Mart: Count on seeing big stores, such as this Supercenter in New Jersey, placed even closer together

The aisles are clean, the store is brightly lit, and "associates" in red polo shirts provide friendly service to customers who flock there for the low prices and the wide range of products offered. Throughout the store the image of a kindly old man appears in posters and photographs. His slogans and philosophy have been internalized by all employees, and they can tell you the story of his long march from humble rural roots to become a great leader.

And by the way, would you like us to skin that frog for you?

Welcome to Wal-Mart in China, where the late Sam Walton has a new image: the Mao of retailing. There, as in Walton's home state of Arkansas, having the right merchandise is paramount. So the store in Shenzhen, just north of Hong Kong, is crowded with tanks of crabs, fish, frogs and shrimp, which can be taken home wiggling or be expertly gutted and cleaned on the spot. Wal-Mart's push into China?and Brazil and Germany and deeper into California and New York?offers a hint of why the world's largest retailer seems unfazed by this stinker of a holiday shopping season. Wal-Mart's sales in stores open at least a year were up only about 3% compared with the same period last year?at the low end of its expectations. But many other retailers were hurt much worse. Wal-Mart just keeps gaining market share, not only from bankrupt discounter Kmart but also from grocers like Kroger, drugstore chains like CVS and electronics sellers like RadioShack. Wal-Mart is mounting an audacious expansion that could double its sales within just five years, to $480 billion. Some of that growth will come in new markets abroad, where 1,200 stores in nine countries already account for about 16% of the chain's total sales. But even more growth will be won as the chain insinuates itself into more U.S. neighborhoods and invades more product categories.

If you think Wal-Mart already sells just about everything, think again. Think PCs, ceiling fans, more fashionable clothing, gasoline and even cars.

"Their goal is to have a 30% share of every major business they are in," says Linda Kristiansen, a retail analyst for UBS Warburg Equity Research.

If there's no Wal-Mart store near you, just wait. If you shop at Wal-Mart, expect your store to get bigger or a new store to open even closer. The chain plans to expand from 3,400 U.S. locations today?half of them in the South?to a nationwide network approaching 5,000 stores in five years.

Wal-Mart has 1,300 Supercenters, many of them converted from standard discount stores, offering everything from hardware to groceries and drugs. In some areas, it is placing these 180,000-sq.-ft. monsters as close as 5 miles apart. And in the spaces between, it's tormenting local grocery and convenience stores with Neighborhood Markets (call 'em Small-Marts). Wal-Mart is building its first urban Supercenter, in downtown Dallas. And without fanfare it is testing used-car sales alongside one of its Houston stores. "It's surprising how much room we have for growth," says Robson Walton, 58, Sam's son and the company's nonexecutive chairman. "I'm not trying to be flippant," adds Lee Scott, 52, Wal-Mart's ceo. "But simply put, our long-term strategy is to be where we're not." Yet for Wal-Mart to get where it isn't is going to be a lot harder than it was to get where it is. Even with sales expected to grow to about $240 billion for the fiscal year that ends Jan. 31, price wars in its grocery business narrowed Wal-Mart's profit margin to its lowest level in four years. The company plans to fatten profits by becoming more of a producer and even designer of its goods, especially clothing. It's making blouses in China and towels in India that it intends to sell everywhere from Berlin to Beijing and Boston. But fashion is a notoriously fickle business.

And by diving deeper into the manufacturing of more of its products, Wal-Mart is braving a path that has brought grief to some of history's biggest retailers, such as A&P and Sears. Wal-Mart's centralization of power at its headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., could produce agitation among the managers of its stores, who have traditionally been granted considerable independence in stocking what locals want. And consumers get bored by one-size-fits-all merchandise. Says Ira Kalish, an analyst for consultancy Retail Forward, in a mostly bullish report on Wal-Mart: "Excessive size could breed bureaucracy as well as failures in the areas of merchandising and customer relations."

Whether?and how?Wal-Mart meets these challenges will be of vital importance to its customers, its 1.3 million worldwide employees, the owners of its widely held stock and even the U.S. economy. According to an independent study by McKinsey & Co., Wal-Mart's efficiency gains were the source of 25% of the entire U.S. economy's productivity improvement from 1995 to 1999. "When you become No. 1 and as big as we are, business has a tendency to complicate if you don't do things to force yourself to keep it simple," says Tom Coughlin, head of Wal-Mart's store operations. As simple as keeping the right products in stock?a huge problem for Kmart. And maintaining a smooth checkout system. "We call it Take the Money," says Coughlin. What's the point of low prices if consumers can't pay for their items quickly? Wal-Mart's operating mantra has been "a store at a time," meaning that no one can manage thousands of stores; it has to be done locally. Long before it was fashionable, Wal-Mart pushed responsibility and information to the lowest ranks. Managers of departments such as sporting goods or women's apparel still get detailed reports of sales and profits in their areas, and they have a say in which products are stocked. Store managers can still buy locally and ask headquarters to adjust inventory of company brands that it has asked them to stock. Coughlin says Wal-Mart will not stray far from the locals-know-best model, even as more information and merchandise flows through Bentonville. At headquarters, management focuses on the top 20% and bottom 20% of its stores, as measured by sales and profitability. It wants to know who has been naughty and who has been nice and why. The rest are largely on their own.

Sam Walton used to visit all his stores using a propeller-driven plane. Now it takes a fleet of 20 jets just to keep management in touch. Its headquarters force, 10,000 strong, lately includes a group of artists whose sole function is to design logos and labels and fulfill other graphic needs. That's quite an indulgence for a company so comically cheap that it still puts tin coin boxes next to its coffee pots, demanding 10(cent) a pop.

Wal-Mart's Supercenters are able to underprice their supermarket competitors about 15%, according to analyst Kalish, in part because they are more efficient but also because the discount giant uses nonunion labor. Wal-Mart matches the union pay rate in union markets, but the average wage at Wal-Mart nationally is less than $10 an hour before bonuses. The two most frequent complaints made by Wal-Mart employees to Time?low wages and morale-killing store managers?recently factored into a labor case the company lost in Oregon. A jury found Wal-Mart guilty of requiring associates to work unpaid overtime?even locking them inside stores. The company plans to appeal the verdict and says workers were locked into stores only late at night, for security reasons. Some 40 other lawsuits are pending, most of which similarly accuse Wal-Mart of requiring hourly employees to work "off the clock." Since September 2001, Wal-Mart also has been the defendant in 28 complaints brought by the National Labor Relations Board (NIRB) over alleged antiunion activities, including firing employees suspected of being friendly to organized labor. "The company is dragging wages and benefit levels back to 19th century standards," says John Sweeney, president of the afl-cio, which is sponsoring an organizing effort at the company's stores.

That campaign has borne little fruit, in part because Wal-Mart's wages are competitive with those paid by rivals such as Kmart and Target. Wal-Mart offers health benefits, and its stock plan has been a wealth builder for many lower-level employees, at least until the market crashed. Still, Wal-Mart is regarded as offering ample opportunities for advancement. Charlyn Jarrells Porter, who heads the Wal-Mart division that deals with personnel issues, says two-thirds of its managers come from the ranks of store associates, which is what Wal-Mart calls all employees. This year the company will enroll 5,500 people in its management-training program. "If the jobs are so bad," she asks," why are so many people working for Wal-Mart?" The company denies any of the wrongdoing alleged in the lawsuits and NIRB complaints and insists that managers who violate policy are disciplined. Being viewed as a good place to work is vital to Wal-Mart, because it will need to add some 800,000 employees in the U.S. alone over the next five years.

As it tries to leverage its size overseas, Wal-Mart may find it difficult to export one of its biggest advantages. Its expertise in managing high-volume inventory and supply networks doesn't work as well in Europe and Asia, where the highway systems aren't as good and stores typically are smaller. So Wal-Mart has to become better at buying, reaching further back into the supply chain to purchase at the factory such products as hardware and apparel that it now obtains from outside vendors and importers. "We realized that, as we continue to expand internationally, the need to leverage international and domestic buying power was key, and the only way to do it effectively is to do it ourselves," says Ken Eaton, who heads global procurement. The idea is to buy goods universally for all stores where feasible, so the 20 locations in Brazil can get the same price as the 3,400 Wal-Marts in the U.S. The company ended its relationship last year with its longtime outside-buying organization and hired hundreds of that firm's employees to start rounding up fruit and salmon from South America and $6 billion a year in goods from China?everything from clothing to televisions to fans. Wal-Mart has opened 21 offices around the world to oversee its factories.

By becoming contractor, importer and wholesaler, Wal-Mart expects not only to save money on the buy but also to cut down on inventory by speeding up the supply lines. Wal-Mart gets most of its towels from India, and today it reorders once a month. If one pattern gets hot and sells out early, sales are lost. In going direct, however, Wal-Mart will make the factories in India part of its Retail Link system. That allows vendors like Sara Lee (Hanes underwear, Bryan bacon) to dip into Wal-Mart's computers and track sales and replenish supplies constantly. By the same token, Wal-Mart will be held more responsible for these factories' social and environmental policies. As the folks at Nike can tell you, this carries its own risks.

Wal-Mart figures to take 20% of the cost out of procurement over the next five years and improve gross-profit margins by nine percentage points worldwide on general merchandise it buys directly. In retailing, this figure is astonishing. Think about that $6 billion worth of goods from China. Multiply by .09. Take to bank. Global sourcing can provide the ammunition Wal-Mart will need to wage price wars against such powerful retailers as France's Carrefour, Holland's Royal Ahold and Germany's Makro. Each of these European companies got to foreign markets long before Wal-Mart did. At ASDA, the British chain Wal-Mart bought in mid-1999, the company was selling men's jeans for about $24 after paying $14 per yd. for 50,000 yds. of material to make them. Then the buy was moved to Bentonville, and the conversation went something like, "We'd like 6 million yds., please.

Now what's your price?" Try $4.77 per yd. As a result, ASDA slashed its retail prices in half and upped its annual jeans sales to 1 million, from 174,000. ASDA is acquiring some 2,000 products from Wal-Mart's global network and has become Britain's leading seller of kids' clothes. The traffic is not all one way. ASDA's George brand of apparel is one of the most popular private-label lines in Britain, and Wal-Mart recently launched it in the U.S. "We're selling apparel anyway," says Claire Watts, Wal-Mart's fashion boss. "Would it kill us to be a little more up to date?" Designers from ASDA and from Wal-Mart headquarters now go on trend-spotting trips together, an exercise associated more with hip brands like Nike, and one that sounds perilously outside Wal-Mart's core competency. Watts insists that her group isn't trying to move Wal-Mart into haute couture. The focus is fashion basics at low prices.

When the team creates a new blouse, all the product specifications?colors, patterns, fabrics?are controlled by Watts' designers in Bentonville. Then Eaton's group tells the factories what and how much to make. No samples have to be made and sent back and forth across oceans because the company uses high-end computer color rendition and printing. Changes can be made quickly. The motive is speed as much as price. From the factories, garments can be sent to Newcastle, England, or New Castle, Del.?and therein lies the trap. This kind of centralization always makes sense in the beginning, when cost savings are easy and the staff is lean. But history shows that the buying organization eventually becomes bloated, as it did for Kmart, and tries to force merchandise through the system whether or not local managers and their customers want it.

Wal-Mart's expansion has gone well in Mexico, where it is the country's largest retailer. And the company just completed a deal to crack the Japanese market by acquiring 34% of Seiyu, a well-positioned but struggling retailer. But Wal-Mart has stumbled badly in some countries, particularly Germany. "We could write a training manual about our experiences in Germany," Scott says. "We really did more things wrong than right." There, Wal-Mart faces tough competition from well-established chains, especially among grocers. The German managers Wal-Mart brought on board through two mergers resisted American help. "We've been trying to get the Germans culturalized; we bring them to Bentonville," says John Menzer, head of the international division. But Bentonville also had to learn a few things about Berlin. German shoppers found Wal-Mart's door greeters appalling, and they regarded the ever helpful clerks as an intrusion on their private space.

From Wal-Mart's point of view, it's the Chinese who have turned out to be the best capitalists. At the store in Shenzhen, local managers hold Ping-Pong tourneys, stage fashion shows and have clerks hawk products like paper towels in front of a large display. And that's just on Tuesday. The store even has its own fight song ("My heart is filled with pride .. I long to tell you how deep my love for Wal-Mart is ..."). Wal-Mart is increasing this year, from 25 to 40, the number of stores in China. The company introduced the Walton Institute, a program to teach local managers the master's Three Basic Beliefs (respect for the individual, service to our customers, and to strive for excellence), the 10-Foot Rule (always greet a customer when she gets within 10 feet of you), the Sundown Rule (any employee or customer request must be addressed before sundown) and other cultural foundations. In China's three main cities, according to a McKinsey study, increasing wealth will support 250 Supercenters among the competing retailers, each selling $24 million to $36 million annually. That's good. But a U.S. Supercenter sells four times as much.

Walking into a Wal-Mart Supercenter in Fort Worth, Texas, CEO Scott recalls that when Wal-Mart was an underdog, "you could really go after a competitor." Now the company no longer shows comparison-shopping baskets to demonstrate that Wal-Mart has lower prices than competitors. "It just looks like we're picking on people," he says.

To be sure, Wal-Mart has to keep finding new people to pick on. Over the past two years, Kmart filed for bankruptcy, and Ames and Bradlees, once East Coast powerhouses, closed up shop. Wal-Mart is quickly adding scalps in the grocery industry too, the venerable Grand Union among them. Safeway, Albertsons and SuperValu have all slashed their earnings estimates in the past few weeks. Before getting into groceries, starting in 1986, Wal-Mart figured that a typical store needed a potential customer base of at least 150,000 people. But add groceries, and more of the available shoppers show up; each store needs a smaller area to support it. So Wal-Mart can situate Supercenters less than 5 miles apart in many suburban areas. It is also deploying a cut-down grocery-convenience store called the Neighborhood Market between the superstores. At the same time, Wal-Mart is adding merchandise categories, such as gasoline, Linux computers and flat-screen TVs, in which it can take prices down significantly. There's no escape. ceo Although Wal-Mart's stores may look identical, the company is pinning some of its growth prospects on the idea that what goes into them won't be. Wal-Mart's next competitive weapon is advanced data mining, which it will use to forecast, replenish and merchandise on a micro scale. By analyzing years' worth of sales data?and then cranking in variables such as the weather and school schedules?the system could predict the optimal number of cases of Gatorade, in what flavors and sizes, a store in Laredo, Texas, should have on hand the Friday before Labor Day. Then, if the weather forecast suddenly called for temperatures 5 degrees hotter than last year, the delivery truck would automatically show up with more.

The company calls the program the "store of the community." The principle is as old as shopping: customers differ significantly depending on where they live, what they earn and other factors. But the differences are far subtler than anyone ever imagined. The company has been analyzing every purchase made over the past 10 years, looking at the relationships between the items people buy and hundreds of other variables such as time of day and price. The data miners are constantly searching for exploitable relationships?say, between sales of cameras and atlases. Consider: a slow-selling line of chicken pieces was slated for discontinuation at Sam's Clubs. But the software noticed that the customers who did buy the product were huge spenders on other merchandise. So the item wasn't necessarily a loser if it helped keep those customers coming. One can think of Wal-Mart as a huge pipe organ with thousands of stops that executives constantly pull and push. Early on the day after Thanksgiving 2001, one of the busiest shopping days of the year, the system was reporting slow sales of a boxed computer-and-printer combo for which merchandisers had had high hopes. But one location was bucking the trend. A quick call from headquarters determined that the store manager had cut open one of the stacked cartons so shoppers could see they got both machines for one price. Soon a message went to all other stores: open a box. Sales began to move immediately.

Sell a buck. Save a buck. Repeat. It's that cycle of high-powered logistics engineering and nickel-squeezing huckstering that remains retailing's most potent weapon. UBS's Kristiansen sees no reason why Wal-Mart, which has trounced the Dow over the past five years, will not sustain 15% earnings growth. Scott, who earns less than most other Fortune 500 ceos, was leaving a store not long ago when he stopped to chat with one of the many senior citizens who work as greeters. They are a fearless lot, and the old gent teased the boss with a question: "Did you give everyone a big raise?" Scott returned a look of mock horror. "Are you kidding me?" he said. "This is Wal-Mart!"

?With reporting by William Boston/Berlin, Neil Gough/Shenzhen and Rita Healy/Denver