Something quite out of the ordinary happened last week: H. Lee Scott, president and chief executive officer of Wal-Mart Stores, made a speaking appearance at the National Retail Federation's convention at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York.
This is a more unusual happenstance than it might seem on its face, for a couple of reasons. One is that high-ranking retailing executives are increasingly reluctant to speak at trade forums. It seems as though the industry has become so competitive and companies so self-protective and hunkered down that the impulse to make observations of use to the industry as a whole has vanished lately. And, of all the companies that exhibit a fortress mentality, Wal-Mart has been chief, so Scott's appearance is doubly unusual.
So what might have motivated this advance on the podium? Clearly, Wal-Mart is sitting under the harsh glare of publicity and the light hasn't been too kind to Wal-Mart's public visage. Wal-Mart has received black eyes for supposedly riding roughshod over zoning ordinances as it locates stores, for failing to adequately compensate workers or to provide usual benefits, for decimating American industry by sourcing prodigious amounts of product abroad and so on.
It matters little which of these are true, if any, since negatives are attaching to Wal-Mart regardless. It's said Wal-Mart has engaged the services of "public-relations council," as the jarring idiom goes. Perhaps this appearance is one of the fruits of such council. During his talk, Scott himself gave credit to retail analyst Walter Loeb for persuading him to appear.
In any event, there were a few things to be learned about Wal-Mart from Scott's talk, some of which could airbrush the image of the vast discounter. For instance, Scott made known that a supercenter model of 99,000 square feet is to be developed and tried in Florida. SN learned last week it will be in Tampa. See Page 1.
This is an important development because this half-size model -- supercenters are generally of 200,000 square feet or more -- may permit their use in more populated venues. It will also give Wal-Mart a non-confrontational way to run supercenters in inhospitable environs, such as Los Angeles where a city committee nixed supercenter-like stores of 100,000 square feet or more.
On grander issues such as the health care of workers, importing product and the environment, Scott said it's the duty of government to provide guidance on some of these issues, and he called on the retail industry to work together to find solutions to some other common problems.
This agenda, although seemingly simple and potentially productive, poses challenges. The first would be to overcome the common business perception that government does little more than stand in the way of commerce.
The second is that all companies that are not Wal-Mart hold the same attitude about Wal-Mart, namely that Wal-Mart denies prosperity to all other retailers. Any entity that seeks to marshall allies to develop solutions that would benefit Wal-Mart -- even if they would benefit all retailing -- will face a daunting task.