Tell Walmart earnings’ stories

by May 13, 2014

Right in the middle of earnings season, we expect several major retailers to announce quarterly financial results this week, and none bigger than Wal-mart Stores Inc., operator of the ubiquitous Walmart discounts stores, a powerhouse online division that is outpacing the growth of Amazon.com, as the Wall Street Journal reports, and various other products including a new money transfer service.

Walmart checkout

Walmart associate bags groceries for a customer. Photo: Walmart

Most interestingly for the average audience is that Walmart stores are the world’s biggest employer, with 10,000 stores worldwide and 2.2 million employees around the globe, including 1.3 million people in the United States.  With that kind of penetration into American household life — between those who work there, those who shop there and those who are invested in Wal-mart Stores Inc. either directly or via mutual funds — it behooves business writers to find some local angles to liven up a routine earnings report.

Due to the dearth of data available about retail operations — it’s not a super-highly regulated industry — that’s no small task.  Of course, Walmart outlets long have been in the crosshairs for their alleged deletorious effect on regional and Main Street merchants; if you have a relatively new Walmart outlet, you could map the changes to the local retail scene over the past several years and talk with area bankers/lenders, chamber of commerce/downtown development officials, retailers and consumers about how the superstore has affected the area retail landscape.  Also, what does the Walmart give back to the community; jobs-per-acre and property taxes are metrics used by one Walmart critic as noted in this Ithaca.com story about the relative merits of downtown vs. big-box development; those are figures you can fairly readily look up.

Wages are another common topic regarding Walmart stores, and of course the publicly funded benefits that its workers tap to supplement their low Walmart pay.  Both are legitimate stories and I’m not dismissing them, but real facts and figures are hard to come by — the USDA for example, will not release information about which retailers redeem food stamps and to what extent, nor am I able to find any reliable stats on Walmart employment by state, ZIP code or other manageable geographic entity.  These stories, valid as they are, are more in the nature of projects rather than quick turnarounds to coincide with earnings.

However, I do think one angle that might intrigue audiences would be Walmart’s local suppliers program.  Several years ago the chain pledged to use more local produce suppliers, for example, in an effort to encourage small farmers and sustainable agriculture. On its website page devoted to the local supplier program, the company directs would-be vendors to store managers for information, so you should be able to get some leads from your area Walmart(s) to growers and other suppliers.  It stands to reason that any active vendors would feel a bit constrained from candor lest they lose a big customer, but you still could profile local agricultural firms and perhaps others for a different twist on the typical Walmart story; how has this outlet grown or helped their business, for example, and has it created any meaningful jobs?

This NPR story doesn’t give a very good review of the program; your state’s agricultural agency or county extension agencies might be able to provide other insight about how local growers fare selling to the big-box store.

And here’s a Reuters story about Walmart sourcing Made in the USA products; skim through and see if any local firms catch your eye or call the company and ask for names of manufacturers and vendors in your region.