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Pundit’s Mailbag — Wal-Mart’s Lack Of Passion For Perishables

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, May 29, 2009

We have written much about Wal-Mart, yet a tiny piece, titled Another Sea Change At Wal-Mart, highlighting the departure of Pam Kohn from the Senior VP Perishable slot — the old Bruce Peterson position — at Wal-Mart brought a surprising amount of mail. Many keyed in on this statement:

…she never took much interest in industry affairs and, unlike Bruce, didn’t participate in associations, certainly never sought to become Chairman of PMA or anything like that.

Her departure after just over two years in the job is not really surprising. She had no particular connection to perishables, having been a Senior VP for Non-perishables at Stop & Shop; her holding the job always had the air of Wal-Mart’s penchant for getting its people to cross-pollinate. So here they added some perishable expertise to her resume. If she ever acquired any love or passion for the category, it was well hidden.

She was never long for the job anyway. At the time Bruce left, she was Senior VP for the southeast division, which meant she was on the road constantly. She had wanted to get off the road and Wal-Mart filled the ”spot” with her.

Of course, that in and of itself is the story. For Bruce, being VP of Produce and then Senior VP of Perishables, was a career… a life’s work… to build and elevate Wal-Mart’s produce and broader perishables area. It was a position requiring special expertise in the field and was the fulcrum for passion about fresh foods at Wal-Mart.

Now it is a slot to be filled a few years at a time by executives who need to get their resume punched that they have perishable experience.

Here is how one professor took it:

This is probably one of the reasons that, as a consumer, Wal-Mart produce does not seem that appealing most of the time.

We will buy many things there but very little in the way of fruits and vegetables. Add meats to that too.

You are right when you indicate that the person in charge should really care about the product.

— Dr. C. Brent Rogers
Associate Professor of Agriculture
Morehead State University
Morehead, Kentucky

Alas, Wal-Mart’s problem is irregular execution in the field. We have a friend who just started working as a clerk in a Wal-Mart and the stories he tells are just shocking.

Unfortunately, it is very difficult to control what happens at thousands of stores, so Wal-Mart tends to try to control what it can control. So if the produce or meats are bad, the inclination is to raise procurement standards. Unfortunately small improvements in product at the door of the DC cannot make up for poor execution at store level.

Passion about product is always important. At Wal-Mart, the key is having passion for what can actually be scaled. That requires not falling in love with every trendy idea.

Many thanks to Professor Rogers for weighing in on such an important industry matter.

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