Festivities fail to silence critics at Walmart affair

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Anne D’Innocenzio Fayetteville, Arkansas

Walmart chairman Robson Walton, the eldest son of the retailer’s late founder, told employees on Friday to “go for it” if they saw a better way of serving customers, and expressed confidence that newly anointed chief executive Doug McMillon could take the firm into the future.

“He’s an associate chief executive,” said Walton of McMillon, who is a 23-year veteran and started out as an intern. Walmart calls its employees associates. “He reminds us all that Walmart is a place of unlimited possibilities.”

McMillon, who took the reins from Mike Duke in February, is leading the company at a time of changing consumer habits, a tough global economy and intense scrutiny of how it does business at home and overseas.

The annual Walmart shareholders’ meeting on Friday drew about 14 000 people, including its workers from around the globe.

Typical of past Walmart shareholders’ meetings, the event was packed with celebrity entertainment. Singer Pharrell Williams performed Happy on stage with employees. Actor Harry Connick Jr served as the master of ceremonies, and musicians Robin Thicke and Sarah McLachlan performed as well.

Despite the festivities, the company is under scrutiny on all fronts. Revenue at established Walmart stores in the US has declined for five consecutive quarters. The number of customers has also fallen for six quarters in a row at the division, which accounts for 60 percent of the firm’s total sales.

Like many other retail chains that cater to working-class Americans, Walmart is a victim of an uneven economic recovery that has benefited well-heeled shoppers more than those on the lower-income rungs. Moreover, shoppers are increasingly looking for lower prices at online rivals like Amazon.com and at small stores like dollar chains and pharmacies. Walton promised the company would keep innovating.

Walmart is expected to show investors how it is fighting back by accelerating its expansion of smaller store formats with names like Neighbourhood Markets and Walmart Express while pushing online grocery services in several markets.

It is also adding new services catering to the needs of its low-income shoppers, such as its new money transfer service that it says cuts fees for customers by up to 50 percent compared with similar services elsewhere.

At the same time, Walmart is still battling labour-backed critics who argue that its workers’ wages are too skimpy. The issue was brought up on Friday when worker Charmaine Givens-Thomas introduced a shareholder proposal for an independent chairman.

“Something is wrong when the richest of family in America pays hundreds of thousands of workers so little that they cannot survive without public assistance,” she said.

Walmart is also facing tough ethical questions overseas as it continues to confront concerns over how it handled bribery allegations that surfaced in April 2012 at its Mexican unit.

It is being pressured to increase its oversight of factories abroad after a building collapse last April in Bangladesh that killed more than 1 100 garment workers. It was not using any of the factories in the building at the time of the collapse, but it is the second-largest retail buyer of clothing in Bangladesh. – Sapa-AP


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