(Aug. 29) CHICAGO — Wal-Mart isn’t forgetting its everyday-low-price roots, but it is committed to serving a more diverse range of customers to grow its business, said Ron McCormick, vice president and divisional merchandise manager of produce for Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Bentonville, Ark.

McCormick, speaking Aug. 17 at the U.S. Apple Association Outlook 2006 conference, said Wal-Mart has more than 2,000 supercenters and more than 100 neighborhood markets in the U.S.

Together, Wal-Mart and the 500 Sam’s Club stores use dozens of food distribution centers across the U.S. McCormick said three distribution centers are being added this year in Wyoming, Indiana and Pennsylvania.

Wal-Mart provides consumers the chance to get more bang for their buck, he said. Just as the first discount Wal-Mart stores allowed shoppers to buy two ties instead of one for Father’s Day, the supercenters of today also provide the opportunity for shoppers to increase their produce purchases for the same dollars.

As part of its corporate culture, McCormick said Wal-Mart continues to focus on keeping the customer No. 1. Part of that goal is met with making sure all Wal-Marts are “the store of the community.” He said Wal-Mart has always made that its mission, but he said other emergent retailers have made that a special focus and clearly made inroads in that respect.

Another element of that mission, he said, is making the store relevant to more customers in the types of products it offers.
McCormick said some in the media have interpreted that to mean Wal-Mart is going “upscale.”

However, he said the chain merely wants to be relevant to consumers with more disposable income and not leave behind its traditional customers.

“We have to appeal to a diverse and broad customer base,” he said.

A third element of Wal-Mart’s plan is not overlooking the importance of its employees, who are also counted among its loyal shoppers.

One of the things Wal-Mart will soon provide its employees, McCormick said, is a 10% discount on produce purchases. Employees have traditionally been given 10% off for items in discount stores, but the step to give a 10% discount on produce purchases has never been offered before, he said.

With more than 1 million employees at Wal-Mart, that discount should create more demand for produce, he said.

McCormick said Wal-Mart is seeking a better and more sustainable business model for itself and its growers.

“That’s a new focus for us, and it’s causing us to do some things differently,” he said.

However, Wal-Mart’s move into stocking more organic produce is simply an effort to bring value to the consumer, McCormick said.

“We are buying all the organic produce we can find and we would like to buy more,” he said.

However, he said Wal-Mart doesn’t believe organic agriculture is the only way to have sustainable agriculture.

McCormick said Wal-Mart is trying to make sure it has the right produce in the right store at the right time. Part of that commitment is sourcing local produce whenever possible.

While six states account for most U.S. apple production, McCormick said apples are grown commercially in 35 states. The chain wants to be involved with as many local suppliers as possible, even though it may be more efficient to have a smaller number of larger operations.