WMT remains health, wellness stalwart
It has been a challenging few years for Walmart among ongoing sales difficulties, restructuring of senior leadership and the pursuit of a new, yet familiar, strategic direction. Despite all the turmoil and the constant media attention it received, Walmart’s health-and-wellness business unit remained a steady performer through 2010.
The category of health and wellness — defined by Walmart to include the pharmacy and optical services — accounted for 11% of sales of $260 billion last year, versus 10% of roughly the same level of sales the prior year. There also was a modest increase in the number of pharmacies, which numbered 3,732 versus 3,694 the prior year.
So there was some growth; it just wasn’t the blistering pace set during the ’90s or earlier last decade when hundreds of new stores with pharmacies were opening annually and Walmart was gobbling market share. Rather, the past few years, it has been Walmart ceding market share to a wide range of competitors as evidenced by nearly two years of quarterly same-store sales declines. The company aims to reverse that trend by relying on familiar strategies of offering everyday low prices on the broadest assortment of goods in the marketplace, supported by a simplified price match program that allows cashiers to make on-the-sport adjustments.
The messaging is sure to sound familiar to customers since it served as the company’s core value proposition for decades. It is conceivable and perhaps even likely that with Walmart speaking to consumers again, it will see a rebound in customer traffic. Comp-store sales growth also is a realistic possibility, especially since comparisons with prior years are easing, and a bit of inflation, which all retailers appear to be passing through to consumers, will contribute to above-average transaction sizes.
These factors are poised to benefit the health-and-wellness business since an increase in customer traffic will be arising as merchandising changes are taking place under the leadership of new chief merchandising officer Duncan Mac Naughton. Walmart is placing a greater emphasis on new items and once again relying on in-aisle feature displays of sharply priced products to drive sales.
While a return of some familiar merchandising strategies is seen as helping top-line results, don’t look for a meaningful increase in the number of Walmart pharmacies anytime soon. The profits Walmart generates are increasingly being used to deliver shareholder value in ways other than new store growth. For example, share repurchases and dividends now consume significantly more cash than capital expenditures on new stores.
The biggest opportunity for Walmart to achieve a meaningful increase in its pharmacy count lies in the development and subsequent expansion of small-format stores, which are included in this year’s capital budget. The company plans to opens its first truly small-format stores this year in an experiment in which some units will contain prescription departments and others will not. When the first of these new Walmart Express stores opens this spring in Northwest Arkansas, just in time for the company’s shareholders meeting, they are sure to attract considerable interest due to their potential impact on the marketplace if Walmart is able to grow the concept.
That’s a big “if.” While no one doubts Walmart would be capable of opening huge numbers of small stores annually or that the potential exists to make a real-estate acquisition to facilitate more rapid expansion, the financial viability of any type of small format is hardly a given at this point — this despite the fact that Walmart has ample experience with small stores in international markets and presumably should be able to capitalize on that expertise with a U.S. variant.
The company has been down this path before with Neighborhood Market. Developed in the late ’90s, there are fewer than 200 of the stores today, and the reasoning for the slow pace of expansion was always that supercenters offer a higher rate of return. Now that it is 2011 and supercenter growth has slowed, there would appear to be a place in Walmart’s store portfolio for smaller units. However, a new competitor now exists for capital — in the international area. Of Walmart’s $12.7 billion in capital expenditures last year, the bulk of it was for new stores, and the U.S. and international division were each allocated 33% of that amount. However, internationally, Walmart gets more bang for its buck. Walmart added 23 million sq. ft. of new selling space internationally, whereas in the United States, a comparable expenditure netted only 10 million sq. ft. of new space. In addition, the company faces considerably less aggravation in many of its international markets as its proposition of low prices and quality merchandise for consumers and jobs with benefits is greeted more warmly.
Resilient Kroger readies for recovery
In retailing, it’s a given that a long-term, severe recession will cut through the ranks of food, drug and general merchandise retailers like a scythe through wheat, pushing weaker players out of the market as consumer spending dries up and Darwinian realities winnow the field. But it’s also true that the strongest merchants can emerge not only intact, but also with even brighter prospects if they innovate, invest and retain the loyalty of their customers.
Clearly, Kroger belongs in the latter category. The Cincinnati-based supermarket and combo-store behemoth weathered a tough 2010 with a 2.8% increase in same-store sales across its multifaceted retail empire and net earnings of more than $1.1 billion. The company also increased share of grocery sales by 80 basis points, according to Nielsen research, and in the final months of the fiscal year ended Jan. 29, 2011, appeared to regain momentum in drug and non-food sales.
“Kroger’s business proved resilient in 2010, weathering a challenging environment that continued to affect many of our customers,” said chairman and CEO David Dillon in March. “We were particularly pleased to see solid growth in our drug/general merchandise department where sales had softened during the recession as customers scaled back discretionary purchases.”
Sadly, the start of Kroger’s new fiscal year also witnessed the loss of one of its top pharmacy and non-food executives, EVP Don Becker, a 42-year company veteran who died unexpectedly in February at 62 years old. Becker oversaw drug, grocery and general merchandise buying, marketing and merchandising, and also was responsible for The Little Clinic operations.
Dillon called Becker a “dear friend and extraordinary leader” who “leaves a legacy of enthusiasm and passion for doing what’s right.”
Despite that major setback, Kroger appears to be laying a solid foundation for continued success. The company operates 1,950 in-store pharmacies that filled nearly 140 million prescriptions in 2010.
Besides a strong presence in the flagship Kroger combo stores, that pharmacy network sprawls across a complex web of such regional chains as King Soopers in Colorado, Ralphs in California, Smith’s Food & Drug Centers in Utah, Fry’s Food & Drug in Arizona and Fred Meyer in Oregon.
In 2010, Kroger also purchased its erstwhile partner in walk-in patient-care centers, The Little Clinic. The buyout gave it control of one of the nation’s largest operators of retail-based clinics, with 77 professional centers in select Kroger, Fry’s and King Soopers stores in Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Arizona and Colorado. The company also provides management for 40 branded clinics in Florida and Georgia.
In the midst of a tough economy, Kroger also invested a total of roughly $2 billion last year in store remodeling, the Little Clinic purchase, new technology and other improvements. Steady investments in automation have helped transform the pharmacy, where pharmacists in any of its stores and operating companies can see into any customer’s patient profile and prescription record via its nationally integrated pharmacy automation platform. That system, called the EasyFill Pharmacy Retail Network, allows pharmacists “a single view of the patient across Kroger,” according to Chris Hjelm, SVP and CIO. The system also tracks all pharmacy transactions in real time, he said, so “we know when a prescription is sold, not just filled.”
Kroger’s pharmacy team also continues to expand pharmacy and clinic-based services, including a variety of immunizations and biometric screenings for such conditions as diabetes, hyperlipidemia and obesity. Some Kroger pharmacists also now participate in long-term programs for diabetes management, education and coaching, in coordination with registered dietitians and certified diabetes educators.
Kroger also continues to wield one of retailing’s most effective loyalty card programs. The company reported that more than 90% of its customer transactions now involve the use of the Kroger card.
Costco focuses on Rx as U.S. sales soar
Many analysts have voiced concern that despite numerous indications of a slow, but healthy, economic recovery in the United States, growth in the number of jobs has lagged, even as it has exceeded economists’ expectations.
But another indicator that the economy is picking up speed is U.S. sales growth at Costco Wholesale, the members-only mass merchandiser based in Issaquah, Wash. For fiscal 2010, sales at the company’s 424 U.S. stores — which the company officially calls warehouses — were $59.6 billion, compared with $56.5 billion in 2009.
Most of the company’s sales come from its famous bulk-sized packages of various consumer packaged goods and such products as furniture and food. But prescriptions at the pharmacies still accounted for a steady percentage of sales, at $1.5 billion, while nonprescription pharmacy items, like over-the-counter drugs, had sales of $1.7 billion.
The company also has ramped up online pharmacy retailing. “Costco continues to expand physical infrastructure and continues to make improvements to the online ordering experience for pharmacy customers,” Costco SVP pharmacy Vic Curtis told Drug Store News. “With mail-order, specialty and retail business growing nicely year over year, the further integration of e-commerce solutions is important for Costco members.”
Costco also has introduced such initiatives as the Costco Member Prescription Program for uninsured Americans and the Costco Pharmacy Benefit Partnership, a prescription benefit program. In addition, the retailer has plans to introduce such services as refill reminders and automatic refills.
“Even though we rate at or near the top in customer surveys, we think we can do even better,” Curtis said. “This not only includes the in-warehouse experience, but also with regard to making it easier to use Costco pharmacy online refills [and] pickup in warehouse, status check [and] pickup reminders.”