Sears' October bankruptcy filing echoes a common fate of traditional retailers after they reach the top. Like A&P before it, Sears didn't adapt to new competition fast enough, then began a decades-long spiral into Chapter 11.
As recently as five years ago, Walmart seemed poised to follow a similar path. Comparable-store sales growth had started slowing in the mid-aughts, then turned negative as the decade wore on. The Bentonville, Arkansas-based behemoth let Amazon get the jump on e-commerce, then passed on opportunities to catch up through acquisitions.
But by reinventing its strategy by investing in store improvements and, yes, acquisitions and more, Walmart has broken the pattern. It not only stopped the decline. It's growing again. The retailer posted its strongest showing in a decade in its fiscal 2019 second quarter, capping more than four years of consecutive quarterly same-store sales growth. Comparable-store sales were up 3.4 percent in the just-concluded fiscal third quarter, ahead of company targets. And Walmart's 43 percent growth in U.S. e-commerce in the third quarter (building on 60 percent growth the prior year) was well ahead of Amazon's North American pace, excluding the effect of acquiring Whole Foods.
CEO Doug McMillon, who worked with legendary founder Sam Walton, has been willing to rewrite Walton's playbook by investing heavily (and losing money) to compete with Amazon in e-commerce. But he also began fixing basics of store operations—like checkout wait times and out-of-stocks—with help from Walmart U.S. CEO Greg Foran, a veteran of Australia's retail market.
The 2016 Jet.com acquisition brought with it Jet's founder Marc Lore, who became head of Walmart's e-commerce unit, and fueled rapid growth. Walmart has expanded store pickup of online orders to 2,100 stores, beating competitors handily in a rapid rollout after years of slow-moving pilots. Meanwhile, Jet has become part of the company's play for urban millennials who largely avoided Walmart. Acquisitions or partnerships with specialty retailers like Modcloth, Bonobos and Lord & Taylor have also given Walmart a growing presence in apparel categories where it's long battled for relevance.
"There's a maniacal focus on the customer and a willingness to reinvent the company if necessary to stay relevant," says Tony Rogers, who was Walmart's U.S. chief marketing officer the past two years as results accelerated. "That's hard to do when you're the world's largest company, but it's been pretty amazing to see how willing Walmart has been to upend anything and everything that needed to change in order to evolve with the customer."
Rogers oversaw merging offline and e-commerce marketing teams and marketing plans across multiple offices and merged agency relationships under Department W headed by Publicis Groupe.
In August, Rogers became chief member officer at Sam's Club, which has struggled to keep pace with its bigger corporate sibling Walmart as well as rival Costco. The Walmart U.S. operation he left behind added American Express veteran Janey Whiteside in the new post of chief customer officer and TripAdvisor veteran Barbara Messing reporting to her in Rogers' CMO post.
Speaking to investors in October, Whiteside described her job—spanning marketing, merchandising and operations—as something that "allows us to think differently, to work together, to solve problems on behalf of the customer." One example: improved store maps on Walmart's mobile app that guide people in filling their shopping lists.
While Walmart isn't losing sight of its price-focused shoppers or its new prime target of convenience-focused moms, it's also reaching out to "tech-savvy millennials," says Whiteside, through initiatives like JetBlack, a first-of-its-kind voice-to-text online concierge subscription service primarily for people in New York doorman apartments.
Meanwhile, Messing, who helped lead TripAdvisor's transformation from travel research to booking, now oversees a somewhat opposite evolution as the planet's biggest retailer tries to get better at content and reviews.
"We're in the midst of an incredible transformation," says Messing.