Retailers like to say there was no playbook for 2020, and that’s certainly true of Walmart.
At CES 2021 this week, president and CEO Doug McMillon outlined how exactly the retailer proceeded amid a year of upheaval, with priorities shifting as 2020 progressed.
While navigating the pandemic, then the summer’s racial justice protests, six priorities became clear to McMillon about how business at America’s largest retailer had to change.
Walmart’s first priority was to keep employees safe, which included protecting their physical, financial and emotional health. The retailer was able to roll out efforts to this end at a speed that surprised even its CEO.
“It was amazing to me how quickly our team was able to secure tens of millions of surgical masks for our associates,” he said. “In the early days, they put up plexiglass across our cashier stands [and] in our pharmacies in a matter of days and weeks nationwide, which was incredible to me.”
Priority #2 was to keep the supply chain moving after unexpected spikes in demand left store shelves empty.
“You’ll remember—especially in the early days—there was pressure on the country’s meat distribution system, and there have been really a lot of challenges across food in the beginning and then general merchandise,” McMillon said. “I was in a store not long ago where we’re still really struggling to be in stock on adult bikes and all the things that people want when they’re at home or they want to get outside the house, take care of their yard. … The demand really changed on a lot of those items.”
Once its associates and customers were taken care of, Walmart turned to helping its business partners and communities.
“We forgave rents, we gave suppliers different terms, we did other things knowing that we had cash flow, and some of our partners and people that are part of our big supply chain needed help,” McMillon said.
The retailer also streamlined its hiring process from a week to as short as 24 hours, including background checks, ultimately bringing on more than 500,000 new employees.
“We hired all kinds of people that needed to come and work for a temporary period of time, some of which are still with us, some of them have gone back to the jobs they had before as reopening has occurred around the country,” he added.
Once Walmart got a handle on the immediate crises of the pandemic, it looked ahead to position itself for what’s to come in post-Covid shopping.
“There were behavioral changes from shoppers that drove our ecommerce business and drove our pickup business and delivery business out of our stores,” McMillon said. “And so we were ready for that to a large extent and were able to react.”
In addition, he noted many of these changes are here to stay.
“The pickup business and the delivery business are going to just be bigger and grow more, and we’re ready to make the most of that,” McMillon added.
Amid the pandemic’s seismic shift in consumer behavior came another reckoning for retailers. McMillon noted that the police killing of George Floyd in May 2020 spurred the retailer to make more progress on diversity, equity and inclusion.