Thursday, October 04, 2007

Vindication: The Wall Street Journal Officially Buries "Wal-Mart Era"

Yesterday's Wall Street Journal featured a prominent, front page piece entitled, "Wal-Mart Era Wanes Amid Big Shifts in Retail."

As such, I'm going to declare yet another of my predictions vindicated. I wrote pieces on this blog, here, and here, as long ago as September of 2005, when I began writing this blog.

Among the quotes from my earlier posts are these from April of this year,

"Friday's Wall Street Journal ran a piece in their Money & Investing section on what ails Wal-Mart, and how to fix it. Trouble is, they mostly asked a group of money managers. Why they think those guys would have a lock on such knowledge is beyond me.

In my opinion, most of them are barking up the wrong tree. Wal-Mart isn't 'coming back' as they knew it. It's big, sluggish, and hard to manage with its saturated markets.

Rather, Wal-Mart is likely at a crossroads. If it desires to regain consistently superior total return performance via growth, then it needs to do a better job identifying those markets which will sustain its traditional, logistics-dependent strategy for dominating the low end of retail merchandising. Whether this means staying or leaving Japan, I don't know. But Wal-Mart's management should.

My own view is that it's unlikely that Wal-Mart will regain its former consistently superior outperformance record. Its size, need to be in multiple countries and exposed to radically varying cultures and logistics environments probably presents the firm's management with too many challenges to overcome simultaneously.

But, since I'm neither a broker, nor a current investor in Wal-Mart, I don't have a stake in convincing others to either buy, or sell the firm's stock based upon expectations. I'm just writing what I have observed, from both my proprietary research, track record of portfolio selections, and the recent media coverage of Wal-Mart's performance."

And these sentiments, from September, 2005,

"Back when I was earning my degrees in Marketing, there was a theory which was taught that went by the name of “the wheel of retailing.” It essentially observed that every so often, a new, low-cost retailer will arise that rips through the existing sector structure like a hot knife through butter, growing at the expense of outmoded, expensive older giants.

That said, the Wal-Mart saga since the 1980s is both remarkable, yet not surprising. What the company did is not all that new. It upended several existing chains of general merchandisers who had grown inefficient, insensitive to consumer needs and wants, and basically moribund. How it did it was with the latest version of what the lowest entrants on the wheel of retailing always use- low-cost supply of large volumes of goods. It looks glitzier now, with integrated IT functions shared among vendors. But if you go back to the architect of Sears’ great transformation, you will find that Robert Wood, the creator of that transformation, learned his supply skills as quartermaster on the Panama Canal, one of the more challenging logistical projects of that era.

What is puzzling me is why there is all this attention paid to the mid-late life growth pangs of a retail success. Retailers who began life at the bottom always try to extend growth, once they saturate the market with stores, by moving up-market. And they nearly always fail in doing so.So will Wal-Mart. The company appeared briefly as a selection in the large-cap equity portfolio I manage. That was back in the 90s. But it hasn’t performed in a consistently superior fashion in over a decade."

I'm quite proud of the fact that I called the demise of the "Wal-Mart era" two years ago. It's sort of sad that as fine a business newspaper as the Wall Street Journal both missed the boat for this long and, even now, in their comprehensive article yesterday, can't come up with a reporter who is familiar with the 'wheel of retailing' concept. Or Schumpeterian dyanmics. Because both figure in this story.

The 'wheel of retailing' is an old, but still valid, marketing concept which observes that, over time, low-end retailers eventually attempt to move upmarket, making way for new entrants, while tending to stall in their new product/markets. This is Wal-Mart, to a "T." Schumpeterian dynamics explains, additionally, why, over time, Wal-Mart sowed the seeds of its own competition, as well as became a target for regulatory and social activist forces, sapping its energy and tarnishing its reputation.

As it is, the article thoroughly documents Wal-Mart's troubles amidst shifting consumer values which place style and convenience above price. Further, having dominated their product/market spaces for so long, they became the target at which to shoot. Consequentially, the article mentions that many competitors, such as the drugstore chains, Walgreens and CVS, simply redefine their offerings to avoid head-to-head competition with the retailing giant. Krogers does the same in food, offering semi- and fully-cooked meals to differentiate itself from Wal-Mart's grocery stores. Tesco, the British food retailer, is about to enter the Western US market with a portfolio of store types, taking on Wal-Mart in this large product/market.

The Yahoo-sourced price chart in this post demonstrates, compares Wal-Mart's performance since the early 1970s with the S&P500. It's clear that, except for a brief 2-3 year period in the late 1990s, Wal-Mart's market performance has been stalled since 1992, i.e., for 15 years!

That's an awfully long time to be waiting for a turnaround, isn't it? That's why I called the company dead as a consistently superior total return performer. The Wall Street Journal article echoes my own research findings and observations about the retailer- it's simply grown too large and stable to respond with alacrity anymore to changes in consumer tastes. Further, with such a large, inertial sales volume, significant growth is no longer easy. Wal-Mart's ventures abroad have disappointed, suggesting their management style is not transferring well or easily to China, Europe, et. al.

As the chart above shows, if you had bought Wal-Mart stock over 30 years ago, and simply held, you'd still have outperformed the S&P for the period by a stunning margin. But you'd have to have sat and watched it tread water for this entire decade. Simply put, Wal-Mart's best days are behind it in terms of consistently superior shareholder return performance.

And you read it here first. Two years ago.

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