Can a Wal-Mart Lifer Fix Its Broken Image?

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Wal-Mart (WMT) lifer Doug McMillon has his first workday as CEO today.

It's going to be a long, long day.

Wal-Mart, as a company, has long seemed like a retail version of the Borg, the Star Trek villains that were half-man, half-machine. You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile.

The company has spent decades tearing through the American landscape with its huge stores, destroying town centers in the name of low prices. More recently it has moved into big cities, expanded overseas, and built the second-largest online store in the world.

But contradictions are building within the model. Keeping costs down means keeping wages down. The company has found itself with a target on its back. It's considered overly American in international markets and overly aggressive in domestic ones.

This culminated in a rare earnings warning last week in which the company acknowledged problems in China and Brazil, but also warned that same-store sales in the U.S. will be down, as will be those at Sam's Club warehouses.

Wal-Mart blamed bad weather and reductions in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for the U.S. problems. Labor groups have long noted that many Wal-Mart employees rely on public assistance programs.

Even Wal-Mart bulls, like those at Planet Retail, were alarmed, especially by the Sam's Club weakness, calling it "a bolt from the blue." It was especially alarming since Sam's Club rival Costco (COST) beat expectations on same-store sales over Christmas.

Bill Simon, president and CEO of Walmart US, who joined the company in 2006 from restaurant company Brinker International (EAT), said last year the company was at an "inflection point," by which he meant it would be opening more small stores and fewer Supercenters.

But it's also at an inflection point in terms of its image. What the earnings warning means is that the company is not connecting well with higher-income customers.

Do such customers care that the National Labor Relations Board issued a consolidated complaint last month against the company, charging that it "unlawfully threatened, disciplined and/or terminated" employees engaged in legally protected protests over wages and working conditions?

Conservatives, and Wal-Mart management, respond that the company is the "victim" of a "partisan" government attack, and that charges against the company are untrue. Maybe. But the image of the company is obviously suffering among higher-income consumers, and this is now affecting the bottom line.

McMillon has spent his life in the present Wal-Mart culture. He ran the company's international unit for four years, ran the Sam's Club unit before that, and before that worked in general merchandising. He is a native of Jonesboro, Ark., a few hours from the company's headquarters in Bentonville, and has been working at Wal-Mart since he was a teenager.

Now, in order to grow the company, he has to build relationships with consumers who are increasingly suspicious of the company's motives, who consider it a bully, and who frankly consider it lower-class.

It's all becoming highly political. Wal-Mart was first charged with bribing its way into the Mexico market, and now faces investigations in Brazil, India and China. Its fight with organized labor is inherently political, and upper middle-income consumers tend to avoid political fights.

McMillon must also find a way to compete with Amazon.com (AMZN). Wal-Mart's online operations are still run separately from its stores, and shipping costs are said to be higher than those at Amazon.

Can a Wal-Mart lifer change the company's public image, create labor peace, expand internationally without arousing suspicions of bribery and attract higher-income consumers? That's McMillon's challenge. If you invest in Wal-Mart today, you're betting he's up to it.

At the time of publication the author owned shares of Amazon and Costco.

This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff.

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