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It's Time To Fix What's Actually Broken: My Open Letter To Wal-Mart

As a shareholder of Wal-Mart, I have become dissatisfied with the way the company treats its customers.

Through a series of experiences throughout the last two years, I have come to the conclusion that Wal-Mart has issues that need fixing.

I therefore present this open letter to the management of Wal-Mart.

To The Wal-Mart Stores Incorporated Executives and Management:

I have been a shareholder of Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) for over 18 years. I held my shares through the 2008 recession with confidence that Wal-Mart would be there on the other end, and not just barely. As a shareholder of the company I enjoy my dividend every quarter. I actively shop at Wal-Mart stores and find things at lower prices than other outlets nearby - not to mention Wal-Mart locations are, and have been, conveniently located for me.

Wal-Mart was a large part of my college life. Being located just on the other side of the highway from my dorm, it made it not only convenient - especially at crazy hours of a college student's life - but worthwhile to find everything I needed under one roof. Wal-Mart has been good to me and I expected that to continue.

That Was Then, This Is Now

In the last year-and-a-half to two years, I have had a different experience in Wal-Mart stores. These experiences I talk of are contrary to what I have come to know and like about Wal-Mart and its stores. These experiences have been given the benefit of the doubt and so I have returned to shop at your stores hoping that it was just an "off-day" or that it would be taken care of by actively alert management in the meantime.

It is safe to say it has only gotten worse as time has gone on. My experience is not geographically centered nor is it tied to one particular store - though some instances seem worse at particular locations compared to others. I have visited and shopped at seven different locations in the eastern United States during the last year-and-a-half.

The experiences I have had have shown me that not everything is wrong. There are, however, very specific but powerful issues that are causing a larger unraveling of the company. In the following sections, I have separated out where I do not see issues and where I do see issues.

Where I Find No Issue

Your issues are not your products. Most of the Wal-Marts I have visited are supercenters and include 99% of what I need in a typical shopping run. I can pick up everything from windshield washer fluid for my car to toothpaste to outdoor supplies to Gatorade. I do not see much of an issue with your selection.

Your issues are not your prices. The things I buy at Wal-Mart stores are typically less than competitors or other suppliers nearby. Even if your price isn't wholly less in dollar terms, the simple fact that I can get it in the same place my other household needs are located allows me to otherwise save time and gas traveling elsewhere.

Your issues are not your locations. As I said earlier, your locations have been convenient and have allowed me to get through college without a hassle. You seem to have more than enough locations in a city area, especially considering the amount of floor space your stores require. I don't have a problem here.

Where Your Problems Lie

Where your issues in fact lie are with your inventory, your management, the cleanliness of your shelves, and your front end staffing. Again, as I said earlier, this is not something that I feel is geographically based nor is it a one or two time experience. These issues have contributed to my dissatisfaction on a now longer-term basis.

Let me first say that not all of your management - or employees for that matter - are grouped into this dissatisfaction. I have experienced staff that are friendly, helpful, and pleasant to deal with. Those associates, as you refer to them, deserve my respect and you deserve to reward them monetarily and with renown appreciation and praise. But, I will be just as honest and open about my other experiences.

Your problem is with your inventory. I have walked into Wal-Mart stores in the past two years and have been greeted with empty shelf space with regards to the items that I need in particular. For example, I attempt buy my vehicle oil change supplies at your stores regularly. More often than not the brand and grade of oil I need is not in stock. I have begun to flip a coin before going in to determine if I will find my item. I've realized that two sides are not enough to calculate the probability of whether or not my grade of oil is in stock. Upon seeing an empty shelf and subsequently hearing "no, we don't" after asking your associates if there are "any in the back" I have reverted by going to other companies that stock the item in order to make my purchase. This purchase may include me driving an additional distance and paying more for the item (more than I even feel comfortable with) because I require it and you do not have it in stock.

I have sensed a certain trend with popular items because they seem consistently out of stock more than other versions or variations of the same item. Here's a thought: Order a higher quantity of those popular variances than your normal stock would indicate. Turns out a lot of cars use 5W-30.

Your problem is with your cleanliness. Most of the time I shop in your stores I don't have too much of an issue with shelves and their arrangement. However, there are several times - and really more than once is too many - that I find the shelves disheveled. In fact, trying to find a matching set of a product became impossible during one experience because all variations of the item were put on hooks that were not their correct spots. Items that should have been in order from shortest to tallest were mix and matched and even had some laying on top of the hooks horizontally instead of the natural hanging position they assume. Turns out, I couldn't find the matching size of the item I needed that day. More focus should be put on keeping shelves clean and organized, even if customers happen to "rearrange." However, I believe there shouldn't be much rearranging if the shelves are correct to start with.

Your problem is with your front end staffing. This one is an interesting one because I actually think the reaction (of staff) would be opposite of the situation. The managers of your front end either aren't able to hire enough people or they don't schedule the people they do have during peak hours. This creates long lines and impatient customers but yet most of the front end staff I interact with are still decently pleasant in light of this. However, the fact that you have something like 30 checkout lanes but only staff 8 of them at any one time during the peak hours of a day baffles me. I shouldn't have to wait in line longer than 10 minutes if you have an efficient front end. Of all the things you monitor and keep statistics on it should be customer wait times once in line. Work on getting that down and you'll start bringing customer satisfaction up.

Your problem is with your management. The major reason why I write this letter today is due to this issue right here. I haven't had to deal with necessarily rude managers or managers that have refused to help me but rather managers who were irresponsible and incompetent at righting a wrong. Customer service is your greatest asset and can make or break a relationship. But why should I be telling you that simple fact? This is what your business grew up on.

The example that I have is one that left me wanting to walk out the store and immediately sell my shares in disgust. The only reason I didn't was due to the fact my sell order wouldn't have executed on a weekend while the market was closed. I instead decided to write my dissatisfaction and present it in an open letter hoping that the Wal-Mart I came to know, as both a customer and shareholder, was still present somewhere in the halls of Bentonville, Arkansas.

The short of my experience is that I was looking for a certain item in the sporting goods department of one of your supercenters. This particular location is centrally located in regards to its surrounding area and probably has much higher traffic than my local store. My expectations are then, within reason, to expect an efficient and fluid shopping experience.

I started by kindly asking an associate if someone was available to unlock the secured shelf so I can get my item and make my purchase. This associate hesitantly said she would find someone. This was my first indication there might be a problem in what I otherwise was expecting to be a routine shopping experience. After waiting five to seven minutes patiently I asked again saying no one has helped me yet. A different associate overheard my request and said to their co-worker, "What does he need?" Being within easy earshot I peered around the corner of the sporting goods counter and said directly to this associate that I needed a few items from the locked shelf space.

This is where things went downhill ... quickly.

As this associate continued to stock the shelves they informed me that the key isn't here. I said, "Where is your manager, I would like to speak with them." After both associates shared a hesitant look, the original associate said let me try to get them. After another five to seven minutes a manager had still not come to assist me. From the beginning of my interaction till now I have been waiting over 15 minutes for an item that is right in front of me but because of an unattended sporting goods counter and disconnected communication I began to see that this was probably not going to get better. It was honestly the hesitation of your associates and the environment that I found myself in as a customer that created my suspicion. Still, I provided the benefit of the doubt since I did not speak directly to a manager, yet. I would hold my conclusion till I was given a higher rank to speak to.

After several more minutes, I was met with an assistant manager. I calmly explained to him that I simply wanted a particular item that was on the shelf in front of both of us. This is where the situation took a turn for the worst. He quickly, and without remorse, informed me that "they" didn't know where the key to the locked clear glass doors was. I probably should have taken a picture of my facial expression to completely and fully express to you my disbelief and subsequent irritation at this point but because I don't walk around with a selfie-stick, my restrained emotion in electronic text form will have to do. My first answer was, "OK, I will wait till you find it." This was not the answer to his problem. He proceeded to inform me that "No, we don't know where it is or if it is even in this store." Wanting to actually try to solve this problem for myself and for his sake I asked "How can it be outside the store? It sounds like it must be within these walls and you just need to find the right manager who is holding it." Not helping his case, he explained that it's either lost or the night manager has it.

At this point, I've entered dissatisfied customer stage who just wants the item on the shelf and wants answers...real answers, not a runaround. I looked him in the eye and told him that I think he has a problem and that unsecured "locked" items arenot good. His perception was that because the doors were locked and even with the key missing that the items are still secure. Disagreeing, I told him that if you have a lost key, then you have unsecured inventory. If the key falls into the wrong hands, then someone outside of your company's payroll can easily open it and take what they want creating more problems than this letter can convey.

I wound up never getting the item I was staring at and conveyed my irritation to the assistant manager who was trying to explain his way out of the situation. The following 10 minutes led to him finding a similar item in the back - in a locked cage in which he did have the key for, mind you - in order to appease me. I took the different item because I needed something in order to carry out my outdoor adventure that day. It was an off brand label and at a price that made it difficult to justify when the brand name for just a few dollars more was right there, behind a "locked" glass door. I would have to buy the off brand now to use immediately and the real brand later - not at a Wal-Mart store - in order to really fulfill my outdoor needs.

If you didn't see it, there are two problems here. One, your store did not take care of their secured shelf items. This means you have a security issue. This creates a two-fold problem: First, a store that has items that could potentially be opened by someone other than your employees and second, customers who cannot access the items they need and leave irritated without the products they came for.

The second issue is management that is irresponsible and incompetent at righting a wrong. The keys were lost: That is irresponsible. They did not right a wrong: Giving me the off branded item was not righting a wrong. That was trying to get me to leave with something. Turns out I was leaving either way. It was up to management to decide in what emotional state that would be. It was a simple fix. All they needed to do was compensate me for my troubles which was due to a problem completely caused by them. They should have asked me to return at such and such time when the problem would be resolved and give me the item I was asking for at a steep discount (50% would have been fine). Instead, I was given an off brand with no discount and no resolution to my original problem. Was the security issue going to be fixed today, tomorrow, or next shift? I had no idea. I still don't, in fact. Instead, I have not returned because of this incident to that Wal-Mart to find out.

Even though this experience was bad and dissatisfying enough, the worst part I have left out until now. As I was leaving the store, the associate who initially tried helping me said they were sorry about what happened. Knowing where the blame laid, I told them that it wasn't their fault and not to feel personally responsible. What they said next is what actually put me further over the edge. They informed me that "this happens often."

This is the American company I have come to know? This is what Sam Walton would have wanted his stores to look and run like? I don't think Mr. Walton would approve.

It's time to fix what's actually broken. The service of your customers should be priority number one, and right now I don't see that. You will continue to see sales slow, margins be pinched, profit evaporate, and quarterly dividends be raised punily or not at all if this core issue of customer dissatisfaction is not resolved. It's not surprising that over the last five years revenue has only increased at an annual growth rate of less than a 3% and has flatlined this year.

Your push into "e-commerce" has provided your customers a 21st century experience outside the walls and foundations of your stores but I have seen your focus shift off of those store going customers to both your and their disadvantage.

Fix your management both in the store and those directly above them. Train them to be better servants of the customers. Make sure that the stores exude customer appreciation by fixing the issues I have outlined. This is your core problem.

As it stands, I am not proud of my stock in the company and feel that Wal-Mart has let me down. I present this letter as my formal submission of dissatisfaction. I believe in giving anyone a second chance if their heart and soul is with that change. Therefore, I give you, Wal-Mart executive management, an opportunity to right a wrong. I do not want a direct appeasement of my experiences, I do not want compensation, I want the stores that I shop in to become the customer-focused experience that it should be so that I can walk in and know that my consumer needs will be met, and if not I know that management has my best interests in mind to make it right in that moment.

I know Sam Walton's philosophy is hung on a wall somewhere in the halls of your Bentonville office. I hope that it starts to call out soon so that Wal-Mart can be the customer-centric company that it should be and once was during his direction.

Sincerely,

Shareholder and Customer


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