Inspiration, empowerment — and even better wages at Sam’s Club

Walmart U.S. President and CEO John Furner looks at the retail landscape regarding digital capabilities and employee opportunity

While he was president and CEO of Sam’s Club, John Furner encountered leaders who thanked the company for adding team members and customers who praised “new” products — even though the number of workers hadn’t changed, and the products mentioned had been sold there for decades.

The difference? A concerted effort to empower workers, freeing them up to be more present, and a simplification of the product line with a significant reduction in SKUs. Fewer choices, as it turns out, really cut down on decision fatigue.

Furner, who recently has been named president and CEO of Walmart U.S., shared the stage with MIT Sloan School of Management professor and author Zeynep Ton Sunday morning at NRF 2020 Vision: Retail's Big Show, presenting “Why Retail Jobs Can Be Good Jobs.” Furner had been inspired by Ton’s book, “The Good Jobs Strategy: How the Smartest Companies Invest in Employees to Lower Costs and Boost Profits,” and the two met through a mutual friend.

The book’s case studies were compelling, Furner said; what stood out was that people felt empowered, and that the work they were doing — whether in a retail shop or convenience store — mattered.

“The work that we do does matter,” he said. “I started in retail working in a garden center at a Walmart store… . I realized that serving people and making their lives better made a real difference. I think our role, leading big organizations, is to make sure our teams have the resources, the clarity and really a whole system and process around them to make the environment work, so they can feel successful.”

There’s no better investment you can make than in the people you have on your team, who are serving the people that are paying you to be there.

John Furner, Walmart U.S.

Sam’s Club set out on a journey in recent years: Employees received significant raises, for example, with team leads seeing increases of up to $8 per hour. Team members were shadowed to uncover pain points and frustrations. And technology was incorporated to bring people who had not been doing transaction work onto the floor.

The results have been positive, dramatically impacting retention rates, increasing the bottom line and improving customer satisfaction. But the work continues, even as Furner moves on.

“One thing you never want to do in retail, and I want to be really careful of this, is you never say, ‘We have the answer. We’ve figured it out.’ Because our customers are always changing,” he said. “Regardless of how well you think you’re doing, a week from now, a month from now, there will be much more to do. And then there’s the question of how you scale this across such large operations.”

But all told, “There’s no better investment you can make than in the people you have on your team, who are serving the people that are paying you to be there.”

He is, he said, “very proud of the team,” and noted that retail leadership is akin to running a relay. He was handed the baton, and his job was to help ensure the next leader — Kathryn McLay — has “a better shot at winning with that team than I had when I got there.”

Ton, meanwhile, closed the session with a call to action.

“What we learned today is that a change is possible. And it’s possible even for a low-cost retailer. The change is not only the right thing to do, offering good jobs, but it’s the smart thing to do from a competitive and financial point of view.”

What she finds inspiring about Furner, she said, is his conviction that the change would work, his courage and his ability to make “big and bold, gutsy changes in such a short amount of time.”

“I hope I’m not the only one that’s inspired,” she told the crowd.

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