Here’s what it’s like to attend Walmart’s 14,000-person shareholders meeting, a 3-day extravaganza

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More than 14,000 people from around the world attended the 2016 meeting.
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Richard Feloni

Thousands of Walmart employees from around the world arrived in Bentonville, Arkansas this week for the Walmart Shareholders Meeting.

The meeting itself is on Friday, but over the next few days, these employees, analysts, and members of the media will experience a nonstop Walmart carnival that includes first looks at how the world’s largest retailer plans on keeping a competitive edge, tours of its premiere facilities, and a concert featuring Top-40 pop stars.

In 2016, the shareholders meeting had more than 14,000 attendees and took place at the University of Arkansas’ Bud Walton Arena in Fayetteville.

I was there.

Here’s what I saw last year, during my four days immersed in the culture of the world’s biggest retailer.


Shortly after arriving in Bentonville, I took a trip to the town’s square for a tour of the Walmart Museum. Employees — or “associates,” as they’re called — were arriving on shuttles. Here are some from Canada.

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Richard Feloni

Employees from each country gave a unique cheer in front of the museum and posed for photos. Team Mexico, the oldest international branch, had a great fiscal year to be proud of.

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Richard Feloni

The museum is the renovated and expanded Walton’s Five and Dime, a store that opened in 1950, predating Walmart by 12 years. It was the first store that Walmart founder Sam Walton established in Bentonville.

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Richard Feloni

The museum lobby is a nostalgic throwback to Walton’s early years as a small-time merchant, and it has old-time candies and toys for sale.

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Richard Feloni

President George H.W. Bush presented Walton with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, on display in the museum, on March 17, 1992, for Walton’s contributions to the American economy. He received it two weeks before his death. In his posthumous memoir, “Made in America,” Walton called the award ceremony “the greatest day of my life.”

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Richard Feloni

After his death, Walton’s office was meticulously recreated in the museum. The painting of him and his hunting dogs hangs on a tilt, the way it did in its original location.

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Richard Feloni

Associates coming through the museum that week were encouraged to place a sticker on their places of origin on a map near the exit. Each international store and every other American store (they alternate each year) chose a shareholders meeting representative on merit.

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Richard Feloni

Despite the shrine to 1950s and ’60s small-town America in the museum, downtown Bentonville features new hangouts that wouldn’t be out of place in a college town. And a mile outside the square is the beautiful Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, largely funded by Walton’s daughter, Alice.

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Richard Feloni

Farther out from the square is the Walmart Home Office, what the executives call their headquarters. You’d expect the world’s largest retailer to have a high-rise, but Walmart headquarters looks more like a public high school, in keeping with Sam Walton’s preferences.

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Walmart

We had an early start Wednesday, heading to the University of Arkansas campus in Fayetteville to attend the US Associates Meeting in the Bud Walton Arena. An associate sang the national anthem.

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Richard Feloni

“Sam Walton was the ultimate item merchant,” Chief Merchandising Officer Steve Bratspies told the audience, encouraging them to focus on selling more Walmart exclusives like emoji pillows.

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Walmart

COO Judith McKenna commended exceptional employees with “Happy to Help” awards. She also revealed that Walmart’s old mascot, Smiley, was making a comeback in both advertising and employee awards.

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Richard Feloni

TV personality Steve Harvey was the morning’s guest host, and he entered to uproarious applause. He moderated a game of “Family Feud” between Walmart executives and employees. (The executives won by a point, but everyone pretended it was a tie to avoid a riot, as Harvey put it.)

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Richard Feloni

The Associate Expo, a sort-of corporate county fair, narrowly missed being rained out. Employees could play games, like a tricycle race.

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Richard Feloni

They could also enjoy free snacks and hang out with mascots, like this waffle guy.

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Richard Feloni

The expo provided free Yarnell’s Ice Cream, a small Arkansas brand that Sam Walton used to both sell and eat plenty of.

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Richard Feloni

Aside from the snacks, there was a petting zoo with some goats and a camel — but most people were drawn to its puppies.

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Richard Feloni

We then headed to the first Walmart Academy, in Fayetteville. The company showcased two new initiatives intended to drive recruitment, retainment, and engagement: Pathways and the Academy itself.

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Walmart

All new entry-level employees would be enrolled in Pathways, a map of promotional opportunities and training programs, and all new managers would spend two weeks at the nearest Walmart Academy for a crash course in Walmart leadership. “We want [employees] to really think of retail as a career,” said Michelle Knight, vice president of US talent development.

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Walmart

That night I was the only American reporter to attend the concert, also held at the Bud Walton Arena. Daughtry opened, ending their set with a cover of Prince’s “Purple Rain.” None of the performers or celebrities who make appearances during the shareholders festivities are compensated, but their production companies all have strong distribution relationships with Walmart.

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Richard Feloni

The headliner was 3 Doors Down, which lauded Walmart’s ability to sell albums, as well as its dedication to giving employment options to veterans. I don’t listen to either of the bands that performed that night, but the high production quality of the show made it entertaining.

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Richard Feloni

Thursday was the day of tours, and our first stop was a 1.2 million-square-foot distribution center in Bentonville. A key reason why Walmart’s prices are remarkably low is because the company controls more of its distribution process than other retailers.

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Richard Feloni

Walmart’s forklifts are powered by hydrogen fuel stations, which only need three minutes for a full charge.

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Richard Feloni

Employees are stationed throughout the facility to ensure everything’s running smoothly.

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Richard Feloni

The distribution center was truly massive.

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Richard Feloni

A key to competing with rivals like Amazon will be staying on top of technologies that keep the distribution process as efficient as possible, like this new high-speed bar code scanner. The tour ended with a look at a drone (we couldn’t photograph it), which can handle a warehouse-wide inventory check in a day — a job that takes a month when done manually.*

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* Walmart experimented with the technology last year and while it has not yet stated whether it will roll out more of the warehouse drones, it is also exploring the possibilities of in-store inventory drones this year.


Another key to Walmart’s competitive advantage is its truck fleet, which is constantly being redeveloped to be as safe, comfortable, and fuel-efficient as possible.

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Richard Feloni

We then headed to a Sam’s Club in Bentonville (Walmart owns the chain, named after its founder), which is being developed as a prototype for what the wholesaler will look like across the world by the end of the year.

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Richard Feloni

There is an emphasis on high-end, fresh seafood, meats, and prepared foods — stuff you’d find at Whole Foods, but cheaper.

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Richard Feloni

Sam’s Club CEO Rosalind Brewer said that her company is reinventing itself for a higher-income consumer. This is dramatically emphasized at the Bentonville location, where you can buy a $200,000 necklace.

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Richard Feloni

Walmart US President and CEO Greg Foran led a tour of a Walmart Neighborhood Market in Fayetteville. The Neighborhood Markets are 24/7 supermarkets that are also emphasizing fresh, affordable items.

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Walmart

There were common themes between the Neighborhood Market tour and the Supercenter (the model most affiliated with the brand) tour in Rogers that followed, like the focus on stress-free pickup for online orders.

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Walmart

Walmart’s leadership was also eager to point out Walmart Pay, its proprietary answer to Apple Pay and Samsung Pay introduced at the end of last year.

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Walmart

Among all of Walmart’s entities is a renewed focus on private-label products. We ended the day at the new Culinary and Innovation Center in Bentonville, where many of these products will be developed. Celebrity chef Robert Irvine, who has an upcoming line of food products at Walmart, stopped by to say hello and praise the company.

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Friday was the big day. At 7:30 a.m., the Bud Walton Arena was already roaring.

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“The Late Late Show” host James Corden was this year’s celebrity emcee. He was hilarious, and it was fun watching him fearlessly — but good-naturedly — roast Walmart’s leadership. (For chairman Greg Penner, the husband of Sam Walton’s granddaughter Carrie Walton Penner: “He worked tirelessly — at marrying Rob Walton’s daughter.”)

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Walmart

Updates on Walmart’s annual performance were punctuated with musical performances, like this one from Nick Jonas.

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A shadow was lingering all week outside of Walmart’s bubble — the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which supported protests of what it perceived as Walmart’s low wages and lack of opportunity. Its side had a moment in the meeting, when employee Margaret Hooton argued during the section for shareholder proposals that she has yet to see positive changes at her store and is still struggling to make ends meet.*

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* The union’s fight is still on, and it launched the “Expose Walmart” tour this month.


Sam Walton’s children — Jim, Alice, and Rob — presented Sam’s Club Senior Vice President Cindy O’Connor with the Entrepreneur of the Year Award for her work in helping transform the company for a higher-income, more tech-savvy consumer.

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Walmart

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. CEO Doug McMillon — the head of the entire company — gave the keynote. He opened with the story of how Sam Walton built Walmart, using a paper book that had animations projected onto it. He said that Walmart was entering an entirely new chapter in its life, and that it would have ramifications across the industry. “We have the opportunity to reimagine retail again,” he said.

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Walmart

McMillon pointed to a $2.7 billion investment in wages and new training programs over the next two years for its 2.3 million employees. He picked an Arkansas Supercenter employee named Dwight Blanton out from the crowd as a model employee and gave him a promotion to assistant manager.

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Walmart

The meeting was capped off with a surprise performance from Katy Perry, complete with a light show and smoke machines. In his memoir, Walton said that the carnivalistic shareholders meetings evolved from a desire to have fun with employees and give them a boost of motivation — and the annual spectacle only grew after his death in 1992. “We like to think that this kind of meeting brings us all closer together and creates the feeling that we are a family committed to one common interest,” he wrote.

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Richard Feloni