Walmart EVP Admits The Empty-Shelf, Spoiled-Produce Issue Is Real

The Walmart lack-of-employees-causing-empty-shelves story is not going away, and a senior exec has now gone on record with The New York Times conceding that the problem — which Walmart had been denying — has some truth to it. Jack L. Sinclair, Walmart United States executive vice president for food, said the chain "is addressing the grocery concerns with measures like a new inventory system and signs that will help employees figure out what is fresh and what is not."

The average number of employees per store at the world's largest retailer has dropped sharply, from about 338 at the start of 2007 to 281 now. Although not getting product on the shelf quickly is always an issue, Walmart's recent strategic move into grocery — where it has been able to undercut traditional grocer pricing by about 15 percent — makes it crucial.

Notes from a March meeting of top Walmart managers, obtained by The Times, made the problems explicit, with references such as "one hour out of refrigeration equals one day less product life." The notes said Walmart will change shift responsibilities so fresh food is not stocked overnight and goes out at 10 a.m., not 7 a.m. Also, Walmart will add secret shoppers to check on produce quality weekly.

The story said the notes compared Walmart's fresh-produce reputation with Safeway's. "Safeway customers are 71 percent confident in its fresh produce, the notes said, while Walmart customers are 48 percent confident in Walmart's produce," according to the story. "In the interview, Mr. Sinclair of Walmart said he did not know where that data came from, but that 'we believe that we can improve the perception of quality of produce for Walmart customers.'"

Walmart is trying to address these issues with metric monitoring, such as a new "inventory management system for produce departments nationwide that will track how many days an item has been in transit, how much shelf life remains, and which orders the company should place to meet demand. With delicate items like raspberries, 'you almost need to know by the hour how long the product has been through our system,' which was hard to track when 42 distribution centers buying from hundreds of different vendors were sending around products," Sinclair said.

The story also quoted a Walmart manager, Tsehai Scott, who said there is "sometimes a 30- or 40-minute wait in the line" because there are not enough cashiers working. "With as few as 11 people on the overnight shift stocking the 218,000-square-foot store, 'stocking has fallen by the wayside in what we call the consumable areas,' meaning everyday products like food or toiletries. 'The department won't get as clean as it should,' she said, 'or we'll see spoiled food in the food department, that if we had enough hands, we could get it back to the freezer or refrigerator in time.'"

Asked why the chain doesn't simply hire more workers, Scott said, "The answer that I receive is they want to focus on productivity with the workers that we do have."

Walmart's focus on current worker productivity is both legendary and appropriate. But when sparse shelves and spoiled produce get to the level where Walmart EVPs have to admit the problems publicly, it's probably past time to suck it up and hire more people.

For more:

- New York Times story

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