Walmart U.S. President and CEO John Furner on the ‘next normal’ for the retail industry

NRF 2022: Retail leadership in action
Peter Johnston
NRF Contributor

Monday morning saw a changing of the guard at NRF, as Qurate Retail, Inc. former President and CEO Mike George stepped down from his two-year stint as NRF Board Chair and John Furner, president and CEO of Walmart U.S., took his place.

NRF President and CEO Matthew Shay noted that January 2020 to January 2022 was not exactly the calmest and easiest-to-handle two-year period in the history of retail (or anything else). “Mike stepped up to support us every moment of every day,” Shay said. “Without his leadership, we would not be here. Although he leaves the board, we know that his friendship and support of NRF will continue.”

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His successor, Walmart’s John Furner, was asked by Shay to describe the beginnings of his long career in retail, which — as is often the case — came about by accident. “I started in retail in the mid-1990s,” Furner said, “because I was sure I was not going to work in retail. I wanted to be a musician, which wasn’t working out, so to support my income I took a part-time job in a Walmart store.”

And, basically, he never left. “I started to figure out that I could launch a really great career here, and I learned that successful retail people are people who really enjoy serving other people and solving problems.”

Among those people whose problems need to be solved are the customers. Customers are changing, Furner said (a common theme throughout the 2022 Big Show), and it is essential that retailers understand those changes and cater to them.

“Loyalty in retail is the absence of something better,” Furner said. “When they find it, they’re gone.”

One thing they’ve found, he noted, is a strong urge to shop any way they want to. Consumers love ecommerce in all its various forms, but they also love going to the store. In fact, Walmart has reported increased store traffic in recent quarters.

Shay brought up the pandemic, noting that in additional to their usual Walmart activities, some of Furner’s store employees are giving vaccines and doing testing.

“We have learned how to deal with COVID,” said Furner. “Our teams became defined as essential workers.”

Turning to another much-discussed topic of retail, Shay said, “Walmart is the largest single employer in retail, and retail is the largest private-sector employer in the economy. Talk to us about diversity and inclusion today, and how paying attention to it creates a real opportunity for the retail industry — an opportunity to attract the most talented team possible.”

“It’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day,” Furner said. “He can’t be here with us, but retail is a partner in bringing his vision to life.” The industry, he said, needs to be very intentional and very transparent about its diversity and inclusion initiatives.

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Quoting from a report Walmart delivered earlier this year, Furner noted that roughly 56 percent of the company’s new hires are people of color; 44 percent of people promoted to management in the last year are women, and of those, 39 percent are people of color and 18 percent are Latina.

“Following the murder of George Floyd,” he said, “we launched our ‘shared values’ network — a network of former associates and others who are funded to work on issues like criminal justice, education, health and personal finance.”

As a final question, Shay asked the new board chair how he and his team were thinking about inflation, supply chain issues and other challenges facing the industry.

“We’re in a rapidly growing economy with a high demand level,” Furner said, “which has led to out-of-stocks, supply chain problems, and price increases. Two major things we hear about from our consumers are their health and safety and rising inflation. We as an industry need to work together to remove cost from the supply chain, to make sure our customers can afford what they need.”

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