Walmart International CEO on data privacy, the failed Asda merger and leveling the playing field for women
By Huw Hughes
14 May 2019
Amsterdam - With over 11,000 stores, 270 million customers a week and a turnover of half a trillion dollars, Walmart is without a doubt a powerhouse in the world’s retail landscape. Founded in 1962, the company now operates over 11,300 retail units under 58 banners in 27 countries. Judith McKenna, president and CEO at Walmart International, was at this year’s World Retail Congress 2019 held in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, talking about her reaction to the recent blocked merger between Walmart’s Asda with Sainsbury’s, the double-edged sword of digital data and the need for more women in high roles in retail. Here are FashionUnited’s three takeaways from McKenna’s talk with international broadcast journalist, Naga Munchetty.
The double-edged sword of digital data
For almost all of us, our phones have become somewhat of an extension of ourselves. A 2018 study by Ofcom found that the average Briton spends 24 hours a week online and checks their phone every 12 minutes. Now, more than ever, our phones have become a platform for us to shop - and companies know it. But what happens when adverts become too intrusive? Where do we draw the line? “Privacy is a huge area of focus,” McKenna said. “There are really two sides of it. There’s data security: when someone shares their data with us it’s our job to keep it safe. You’ve then got a fine line; when you do have their data how do you use it so that it’s not intrusive?”
According to McKenna, when retailer use it correctly and carefully, data has the potential to create a more personal shopping experience. “We all have those emails from a retailer that you just keep deleting. That’s where data and analytics will help us to understand the customer a little bit more and, with their permission, we’d like to offer them a slightly more curated experience.” But the issue will no doubt continue to stir up debate along the way. “It’s a double-edged sword,” McKenna continued. “On the one hand, retailers have a huge duty of care with data to treat it like one of the most important things that we have stewardship on. But on the other hand, how do we use it to make an experience that actually makes your life easier? Balancing those two things is a really active debate at our company at the moment.”
Asda-Sainsbury’s merger: ‘We’ve drawn a line under that’
McKenna also briefly spoke about the mega-merger between British supermarket giants Sainsbury’s and Asda that was blocked in April due to concerns from the UK’s competitive regulator, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA). ”We genuinely believed that creating this new business combination from a unique one-off opportunity would allow us to accelerate lowering prices for our customer,” McKenna said. In fact, the CMA made the decision to block the merger because they thought it would do the exact opposite by increasing prices both in-store and at petrol stations across the UK, and would additionally reduce the quality and range of products available.
McKenna disagrees. "I’ve worked in the UK market for a very long time and anybody who thinks that putting up prices in that level of competitive environment, I would challenge, perhaps doesn’t know the environment and the market dynamics very well and certainly doesn’t know what our business stands for,” she said. Certainly, a merger between the two supermarket chains, which have a combined revenue of 51 billion pounds, and their two respective clothing lines (Sainsbury’s Tu Clothing and Asda’s George line) could have created a significant new player in the UK’s clothing retail scene, better positioning the companies to compete with rival value chains.
Not anymore. “A line has been drawn under that deal,” McKenna confirmed. “That was then and this is now. Life moves on fast. The team at Asda and Roger Burnley [Asda CEO] have done a phenomenal job at staying really focused through all of this noise over the last year and have delivered some impressive business results.” She added: “[Asda] is a business really close to my heart and we’ll make sure that going forward they have the resources to be successful.”
More needs to be done to level the playing field for women
“Are there enough women at your level in retail?” Munchetty asked. “No,” said McKenna, without a second’s hesitation. According to McKenna, “everyone has an obligation” to work on the issue and to help women reach higher positions within the industry. McKenna said the problem can be tackled at multiple levels, from making sure companies have diverse candidate lists to implementing the right pipeline programmes. “Whether you're male or female, the obligation is yours to create this platform for the future generation,” she said.
McKenna’s talk ended with her being presented the Woman of the Year award by executive search firm Clarity for her pioneering work at the head of Walmart’s international branch. “Judith, as you continue on your mission, we salute you as an outstanding role model for women in retail all over the world and congratulate you on being a truly worthy Clarity woman of the year,” said Fran Minogue, founder and managing partner of Clarity, as she gave McKenna the award.
World Retail Congress 2019 takes place in Amsterdam between 14-16 May and brings together some 1,400 attendees from 55 countries. Keep an eye on further coverage of the event from FashionUnited.
Photo courtesy of World Retail Congress