Walmart’s John Furner talks about retail’s future

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NEW YORK — When he was asked almost a year ago what pandemic-related changes in consumer behavior would likely stick around once things returned to normal, Walmart U.S. president and CEO John Furner said it was too soon to tell. So when National Retail Federation president and CEO Matthew Shay interviewed Furner on Monday, during the opening day of NRF’s Retail Converge Conference, he asked for an updated response to the same question.

Furner NRF

NRF’s Matthew Shay talks with Walmart U.S. president and CEO John Furner during the first day of NRF’s Retail Converge conference.

“Well, now you’ll probably be frustrated by the answer,” Furner replied, “but I’m going to again say it’s probably still a bit too early to tell.”

Furner acknowledged that Walmart experienced an accelerated pace of change last year in the e-commerce space, where the business more than doubled in two years.

“While there’ll be some fluctuations, and I think there’s still some settling to do, but I think the underlying trend is, is what the trend would have been.”

That trend involves a shift to a combination of in-store shopping and online shopping with store pickup and online shopping with delivery to home.

“What we try to think about is how we’re positioned to be able to do anything a customer needs to do at any time,” Furner said. “And that’s really the strength of our positioning of Walmart. We’ve got a store footprint that’s about 4,700 locations. Our supply chain is able to serve fulfillment centers and stores. Stores are now acting not only as a store, but a fulfillment center in some ways, because we’re able to pick orders for pickup, and we’re able to pick orders for delivery and home for Walmart+ members, and we’re able to pick orders in stores for e-commerce.”

Furner said Walmart is positioned to satisfy customers who are looking for speedy delivery, noting that he recently placed a grocery order using Walmart Express at 10 a.m. and it showed up at his front door at 11:11 a.m. And that capability works alongside a store network with convenient locations and friendly associates, he said.

“So we’re going to be really flexible for the customer and whatever the customer situation is,” he said. “We think we can be flexible enough that we can be there for any change in the environment.”

Furner concluded by addressing the need to be forward-looking without getting too far ahead of customers.

“Someone told me once that it’s important in business to always respect the past, manage the present and build for the future,” Furner said. “You have to do all three of those at the same time.”

Furner said that adage came to mind when he was talking recently with the mayor of Little Rock, Ark. Frank Scott Jr. is Little Rock’s first African American mayor and someone who has been balancing a respect for the city’s long history with a desire to take advantage of the growth opportunities that lie ahead.

The mayor told Furner to ‘never let nostalgia become the enemy of vision,’ and Furner said he thought that was a good way to think about a company like Walmart, which has a history, a culture and a set of values that it remains committed to.

“Walmart’s values will never change, just like being at the everyday low price will never change for us,” Furner said. “But we have to keep building and growing for what’s coming in the future.”






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