Live from Fayetteville! It's Wal-Mart's annual shareholder meeting
The festivities kicked off before dawn at the Bud Walton Arena at the University of Arkansas where thousands of Wal-Mart associates who had traveled to the company's home state filled seats to the rafters. This is a tradition for Wal-Mart, and roughly half of its U.S. stores sends representatives to cheer the company on. Large contingents of employees from China, Japan and Mexico were among the international attendees. Board members, retirees, media and financial analysts filled the main floor of the arena, but shareholders and hard facts were in shorter supply.
How much is the shareholder meeting orchestrated? So much and for so long now, that they've nearly lost all pretense of this being a meeting about financial performance and goals. Executives, their families, Wal-Mart corporate employees and more than a few members of the financial press left the arena seating area and were gabbing loudly in the VIP rooms. What drove them back to their seats? Not one of the many shareholder propositions being read (and ignored), but the appearance on stage of American Idol winner Lee DeWyze.
The crowd rallied and chanted and did the trademark Wal-Mart cheer -- "Give me a 'W'! Give me an 'A'! Give me an 'L'! Give me a 'squiggly'!" Jamie Foxx served as the master of ceremonies and musical performances by Enrique Iglesias, Mariah Carey, Mary J. Blige, Josh Groban, and DeWyze only illustrate how powerful the company is to deliver such talent. Wal-Mart uses the meeting to celebrate its associates, and this year was no different. What was unique, was what some regular attendees described to WalletPop as a dampened spirit.
Wal-Mart has some serious business to attend to. Traffic and sales volume at U.S. stores is suffering. Same store sales -- considered a key measure of a retailer's health -- is down, and sales growth is largely coming from International units. Overall retail growth industry-wide is dubious too. There's a renewed focus on streamlining operations and reducing costs there, but not much insight is being offered into how Wal-Mart will increase top line growth (sales).
Industry analysts have questioned whether Wal-Mart can hang on to the customers it gained during the recession, as shoppers pinched pennies and traded down from some pricier retail stores. Target's financial results are trending up as the U.S. economy begins a tentative recovery.
At the meeting, Wal-Mart President and CEO Mike Duke talked about long-term trends, showing how Wal-Mart has averaged 10% growth per year for the past decade including a pretty dismal past fiscal year. The company is looking to slow growth in expenses, expand internationally, fine tune assortment and roll back prices.
It's back to basics for Wal-Mart, including doing that cheer.