NRF 2020: Walmart Exec, MIT Professor Say Retail Jobs Can Be ‘Good Jobs,’ But Much Work Remains

  • January 13, 2020 at 7:00 AM EST
  • By Glenn Taylor
Photo credit: NRF
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Closing an NRF 2020 keynote discussion with Walmart U.S. CEO John Furner, Zeynep Ton, Professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, made a poignant point about the state of retail employment. The session had initially been titled “Why Retail Jobs Are Good Jobs,” but Ton requested a change to “Why Retail Jobs Can Be Good Jobs,” to reflect the reality of how far the industry still needs to go. While many retailers have made strides to improve the quality of their jobs, there are still too many companies that have neglected to do so or have a long way to go. As CEO of Walmart U.S., the largest employer in the country, Furner is on a mission to transform the jobs available at the retail giant to truly good ones.

“The truth is, retail is the country’s largest employer, but too few companies are making the choice to offer good jobs in retail,” Ton, author of The Good Jobs Strategy, said during the keynote. “Many of these jobs tend to be low paid, with unstable schedules and very few opportunities for success and growth. We learned today that a change is possible with a world-class retailer, and that offering good jobs is not only the right thing to do, but also is the smart thing to do from a competitive advantage and a financial point of view.”

Walmart has increased its minimum wage to $11 per hour in recent years, and Furner plans to implement policies he helped spearhead during his time at Sam’s Club as a way to improve the working environment. Furner, who served as President and CEO of Sam’s Club until November 2019, noted that initiatives such as predictable block schedules and the introduction of the “Ask Sam” mobile voice assistant all contributed to improving the associate experience, giving workers a sense of stability and new knowledge of the ins and outs of the stores they work in.

“In the Club business, there’s a saying I’ve always had in my head,” Furner said. “If you can find me a great group of leaders in a Sam’s Club, I’ll show you a great Sam’s Club. In the summer of 2017, I visited our Club in Lubbock, Texas, and met the club manager, Jerry, who had worked at the company for 18 years. I asked him a couple questions about his business and he immediately stepped to the back. He had 15 team leaders in front of him and said, ‘They’re going to answer all your questions.’ As I started learning from them, they were not only answering my questions, they told me everything you’d ever want to know about the business, and what it takes to run a business in Lubbock, Texas. At the end of that, it was so clear that if we could replicate that in 100 buildings, we would have the basis of a winning strategy.

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Advancement Plays Key Role In Growth Of ‘Good Jobs’

With that in mind, Sam’s Club had created an environment where advancement opportunities existed, and they were for jobs that “people aspire to move into” such as a Club manager or assistant manager.

“It’s not all about pay,” Furner said. “It’s part of it, but there’s a whole system. It’s removing friction, helping people be predictable in terms of their life and how our lives work together, having clear information and doing work that they know is going to make a difference when it comes to serving customers and retaining members.”

Furner has experienced this kind of advancement firsthand, enabling him to see the positive potential that can come with associate investments. While Furner was appointed President and CEO of Walmart U.S. to replace outgoing leader Greg Foran, who is officially leaving the company on Jan. 31, his path at Walmart started all the way back in 1993, when he worked as a part-time store associate in the retailer’s garden center at 19 years old. Working in such a position helped influence Furner’s opinions on how to empower, educate and train associates.

In the years since, Furner worked his way up through roles including store manager, district manager and buyer. He has held leadership positions across the company in operations, merchandising and sourcing, including a stint as Chief Merchandising and Marketing Officer for Walmart China.

Furner stressed that Walmart’s continued strides to create better retail jobs reflects the overall change in corporate responsibility that many large U.S. businesses are currently undergoing.

“The role of the corporation has changed,” Furner said. “It’s no longer only to build shareholder value. The role of the corporation is to build social and shared value for employees, customers, and shareholders.”

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