Wal-Mart CEO: No Retail Rebound Any Time Soon

Lee ScottWith retailing executives desperate for economic tea-leaves, Lee Scott, Wal-Mart Stores' outgoing chairman, made it short and not-so-sweet: The world's largest company isn't looking for a retail rebound any time soon. 

"We all hope that by next Christmas it certainly isn't any worse," Scott told attendees at the National Retail Federation's annual convention in New York, the NRF says in its blog. "I don't see anything that tells me it's going to turn around quickly." Scott is scheduled to leave his post at the end of this month, although he continues as chairman of the executive committee of the board.

In prepared remarks released by the company, Scott chose to use his swan-song forum not to talk about retail, but to focus on larger national issues, including health care, "our addiction to foreign oil," declining educational standards and immigration. "From what I have learned in business, and from what I have seen in Washington, the hard questions rarely get asked during the good times. Unfortunately, it often takes a crisis or a period of great difficulty to face challenges--and most importantly, to change," he told attendees. "I learned this at Wal-Mart, during the good times and most recently, during the tough times as well."



Fielding questions from the audience, however, Scott was candid in his assessment of shifts in consumer spending, and that what might be bad for Wal-Mart may actually be good for the economy. Scott says he meets with a group of 50 or so young shoppers each month and that lately, they have been talking about giving up restaurants, movies, or shopping.

"Every one of them had given up something, and they were talking about how good they felt about doing that," he says--and when things pick back up, he isn't sure they will rush right into stores. Scott says he is "not convinced you're going to have the same immediate desire to go back to consumption and debt. A lot of young people have learned what it's like when you're living on the edge and the bad times come."

Ultimately, he says, that may be good news. "While it's tough for us as retailers, I'm not sure if it's all that bad from a societal standpoint," he says. "I've been worried for a long time that someone in 2007 is selling furniture and your first payment is 2011. Is that healthy?"

But not everything has changed because of the economy. Frozen food sales have shot up at Walmart stores, he says, as people cut back on their restaurant spending. "People didn't have any more time just because the economy got worse," he says. "They needed meal solutions that were convenient and healthy."

Mike Duke is set to assume Scott's responsibilities in February, a shift the company announced back in November. Recently, in a move that surprised investors, the Bentonville, Ark.-based chain tapped Doug McMillon, who had been president of Sam's Club, as president and CEO of Wal-Mart's international division.

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