More than 1,000 e-mailed complaints signal that Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s restocking challenges are more widespread than the world’s largest retailer has said.
Wal-Mart customers from Hawaii to Florida and from Texas to Vermont wrote to express their frustration after Bloomberg News reported March 26 that there aren’t enough workers in the stores to keep shelves stocked, cash registers manned and shoppers’ questions answered. In response to the original article, Brooke Buchanan, a Wal-Mart spokeswoman, said in part: “The premise of this story, which is based on the comments of a handful of people, is inaccurate and not representative of what is happening in our stores across the country.”
The e-mails began arriving shortly after the article was published and were still coming a week later. Most were from previously loyal Wal-Mart customers befuddled by what had happened to service at a company they’d once admired for its low prices and wide assortment. Many said they were paying more and driving farther to avoid the local Wal-Mart. Some had developed shopping strategies, including waiting until the last minute to grab ice cream, lest it melt in the lengthy checkout lines.
Wal-Mart founder “Sam Walton must be rolling over in his grave to see what has become of his business,” said Tony Martin, a 54-year-old forklift driver who once frequented a Wal- Mart store in Glen Carbon, Illinois.
Wal-Mart’s restocking challenges stem from a thinly spread labor force struggling to keep up with all the work that needs to be done, said Colin McGranahan, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. in New York. The Bentonville, Arkansas-based retailer’s workforce at its namesake and Sam’s Club warehouse chains in the U.S. fell by about 120,000 employees between 2008 and Jan. 31, according to a securities filing on March 26. The company now has about 1.3 million U.S. workers. In the same period, it has added about 455 U.S. Wal-Mart stores, bringing its total to 4,005.
McGranahan said he has talked to workers who say they’re being asked to do more than they can accomplish in a shift.
“Stuff gets backed up, and they’re forced to respond as best they can,” said McGranahan, who rates Wal-Mart market perform, the equivalent of a hold. “The result is an increasing amount of customer-encountered out-of-stocks.”
Those items are missing at a crucial time for Wal-Mart, when the U.S. economy already is restraining its shoppers’ spending. Same-store sales for Wal-Mart’s U.S. locations in the 13 weeks ending April 26 will be little changed, Bill Simon, chief executive officer of Wal-Mart U.S., said on a Feb. 21 earnings call.