by Matthew Boyle Thursday, October 15, 2009 Having grown in fits and starts, Wal-Mart's international unit has a new game plan. Can it master world markets? It's rare that a $100 billion business can be marginalized, but such is the case with the international arm of Wal-Mart Stores (WMT). As a standalone company, it would rank among the top five global retailers. Inside the $401 billion retail giant, though, the business has traditionally received short shrift. Its Bentonville (Ark.) headquarters is underwhelming—a drab, largely windowless, one-story structure named after Bill Mitchell, a former Walmart executive whom nobody seems to remember.
Since venturing into Mexico in 1991, Walmart International has grown haphazardly. During the 1990s the retailer exported its big-box, low-price model. While that strategy worked in North America, the results were so bad in Germany and Korea that Walmart withdrew from those countries in 2006. In response, Michael T. Duke, the former international chief and current CEO, gave local managers more autonomy while instituting more stringent financial goals for each region. The results are mixed: International sales rose 11.5% in the second quarter (before the impact of exchange rate fluctuations), while U.S. sales barely budged. But over the past few years, operating profit margins have declined on the international side, which now has 3,805 stores operating under 53 distinct banners in 15 markets. As international chief C. Douglas McMillon says, Walmart is "progressing from being a domestic company with an international division to being a global company."
A Tale of Four Countries
The trick is how to get there. Four countries illustrate the challenges the world's largest retailer will face in the coming years as it seeks new sources of global growth. In Japan, managers are trying to revitalize a business that has hemorrhaged money for years—weighed down by a hohum brand, the country's byzantine distribution system, and cultural resistance to the discount model. In India, restrictions on foreign ownership have forced the company to team up with conglomerate Bharti, an odd
coupling that has so far resulted in one store. Walmart has spent more than five years in Russia, maintaining a team of 30 executives who are still trying to plot an entry strategy at a time when other foreign retailers, like Carrefour, are bulking up their presence. And in Chile, a decade-long courtship finally led to the acquisition of the country's leading supermarket chain earlier this year, bringing with it a different business model, based in part on financial services. All four demonstrate the perilous but potentially lucrative terrain that lies outside the saturated retail markets of Europe and North America. And Walmart's success will ultimately hinge on its ability to learn from past mistakes and adapt quickly to the shifting realities of these markets. Ahead, a look at the company's strategies.
It's lunchtime at a newly remodeled Seiyu supermarket in Tokyo, and shoppers are swarming around bento boxes that sell for 289 yen, or about $3. In the back, peaches, bananas, and pears are stacked neatly in the bins they were shipped in while the front of the store houses bottles of Chianti and Burgundy from Asda, Walmart's British chain. Nami Misawa, 26, is looking through near-empty discount bins. The recession prompted her to come back to Seiyu, and she's glad she did. "This store used to be a mess," she says, "but now it looks great." Misawa's newfound enthusiasm is welcome news for Walmart, which has taken a beating in Japan. It entered the country seven years ago with the purchase of a 6% stake in the 371-store Seiyu chain. Despite continued losses, Walmart gradually raised its stake, making Seiyu a wholly-owned subsidiary in June 2008. Walmart has had to confront numerous issues in Japan, from longtime Seiyu managers resisting its initiatives to a tendency...