Davos Journal 2011

Wal-Mart's Mike Duke: Davos Man?

January 27, 2011: 6:16 AM ET

Mike Duke sees Wal-Mart (WMT) shoppers embracing smart phones. He "loves" his company's business in Mexico. And given Wal-Mart's history of buying the goods it sells in developing countries, especially China, he's even excited about the handful of U.S. products Wal-Mart is exporting to places like Japan and China.

Duke is attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, for the first time, yet another sign that the once-insular Wal-Mart is taking its place on the world stage. He and Wal-Mart International chief Doug McMillon hosted a breakfast early Thursday morning, a time more suited, Duke noted, to Wal-Mart's culture than the late-night partying culture of Davos. Unsurprisingly to anyone who read Brian O'Keefe's recent profile of Duke in Fortune, Duke is a confident CEO and Wal-Mart is a confident company, patiently exporting its low-cost approach to retailing around the world.

Some highlights of the conversation:

Technology. "We see more and more shoppers who are shopping with smartphones, comparing prices and checking out products before they buy," Duke said. Contrary to conventional wisdom that smartphones and other cutting-edge technology are being used mostly by the affluent, Duke said Wal-Mart shoppers are embracing technology as a way to save money. He said the company noticed an inflection point in digital shopping this past Christmas season, with dramatic increases in customer adoption of Wal-Mart programs such as ordering online and picking up their products at stores. Duke said consumers embracing digital technology doesn't affect Wal-Mart's margins all that much. "But we think it plays well to our every day low prices strategy," he said.

The U.S. consumer. Duke sees a clear dichotomy between better off U.S. citizens, who see improvement in their stock portfolios, and the average Wal-Mart shopper, who remains extremely cautious. Wal-Mart can tell by end-of-month purchases of discretionary items -- they slow down as workers wait for their next paycheck -- how their segment of the economy is doing. He refers to this segment as "the vast majority of Americans," and he notes that the byword that shows up in consumer research is fear. What's more, he says the sentiment is widespread and is as likely to show up in high-unemployment areas like California or Nevada as elsewhere in the U.S.

Job creation. Duke weighed in, not altogether convincingly, on what Washington can do to improve the job climate, namely by cutting corporate taxes. His point is compelling nevertheless: Non-U.S. retailers competing with Wal-Mart for acquisitions can afford to pay employees more because of their lower tax rate. How that example -- better enabling Wal-Mart acquisitions abroad -- would boost U.S. employment isn't altogether clear.

China. Duke and McMillon are bullish on China. Duke confirms that talk by China's political leadership about  increased domestic consumption -- a boon to Wal-Mart -- is real. He notes that wage costs are increasing dramatically in China, signaling that production of the products Wal-Mart sources will eventually begin to move to other countries. This development isn't new, of course. "Over the course of my career I've seen production of a given product move from Korea to Taiwan to China. If you were to track a product over 20 years you'd see that we really do work in a global environment." He also sees higher labor costs in China as an opportunity for U.S. producers. This is especially true for products with relatively high transportation costs in a world where energy prices aren't coming down.

U.S. exports. Along these lines, one revelation is that Wal-Mart actually is exporting some products to serve its stores abroad. Some examples: It is selling Washington apples in Japan and Hershey chocolate in the United Kingdom. Duke thinks "green" products present another U.S. export opportunity, noting that Wal-Mart is using U.S.-made LED lighting in its Central American stores.

The rest of the world. Duke loves Mexico -- he used the word "love" twice -- because it is the company's oldest non-U.S. market and a profitable one. International chief McMillon said security is an issue in Mexico. But he noted that security problems aren't uniform in Mexico and that the company has a sophisticated approach, including working with local security experts on opening and closing times and cash handling. Wal-Mart wants to enter Russia by making an acquisition and still plans to do so, despite having closed down its Moscow office. The company is thriving in a joint venture in India but wants to do much more. It recently began selling onions at cost in India, which caused a stir among its competitors but also served as a publicity tool for Wal-Mart's cut-price approach.

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About This Author
Adam Lashinsky
Adam Lashinsky
Senior Editor at Large, Fortune

Adam Lashinsky is a San Francisco-based editor-at-large for FORTUNE, covering Wall Street and Silicon Valley. Lashinsky joined FORTUNE in 2001, after two years as a contributing columnist. Prior to joining FORTUNE, Lashinsky covered Silicon Valley for TheStreet.com and The San Jose Mercury News. A Chicago native, Lashinsky holds a B.A. in history and political science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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