When I used to go into Wal-Mart, there was one thing I could always count on, and I don’t mean low prices (that too, I suppose - but not ridiculously low like Aldi). Every time those electric sliding doors whooshed opened, there was a kindly, gray-haired man or woman at the door. “Welcome to Wal-Mart.” Or was it “Welcome to your friendly neighborhood Wal-Mart”?

Anyway, I always appreciate that person in tan and blue, most likely a slightly bowed but not broken individual. Not moving as fast as his or her younger associates, I’d reckon, but still very useful as the friendly “face” of the store.

As I think about my last few trips to Wal-Mart, I don’t recall see those few familiar greeters. Perhaps I had just caught the team between shifts - I hope so. As long as their is a greeter at the door of Wal-Mart, there is a chance to receive a warm smile - a scintilla of emotion and interaction perhaps - but something that redeems the energy required for looking for milk on one end of the store and dog food on the extreme opposite.

Unless you go to Wal-Mart at 5 a.m., it is not likely you will see any staff hanging around the grocery aisles, eager to direct you to the spice section. So engagement and friendly banter with store employees is unlikely.

And when it is time to checkout, the dreaded self-check out option actually seems wonderful in contrast to the handful of cashiers with their lane light illuminated. Those few are stacked up with customers lined up at the ultra-mini cashier island. By the way, whatever happened to the long conveyer belt at checkout lanes? Why even have a conveyor if it is 18 inches long?

To my thinking, at least, Wal-Mart must be able to see itself the proper context. . If consumers want no hassle shopping they may order groceries online, with growing numbers of options for pickup and/or delivery. If shoppers want bare bones, no frills and ultra-pricing, they will go to Aldi. If willing to pay a bit more for a more pleasant experience, Whole Foods, Hy-Vee or their equivalent local iterations might be their options. Wal-Mart is still the only way to go if you want to pick up a fishing pole, a watermelon, Tampico orange drink and $20 tennis shoes.

 The most recent quarterly report from Wal-Mart indicated that Wal-Mart has work to do.

Profits were down 5% in the first quarter that ended April 30. The number of customers in the first quarter was off 1.4% compared with year-ago levels. Food stamp funding is down.

Recent coverage in The Packer about Wal-Mart’s sustainability efforts noted some of the projections for Wal-Mart’s produce buys in coming years.

From the article:

Jack Sinclair, executive vice president for the chain’s grocery division, said Wal-Mart buys 1 billion pounds of bananas every year now and in five years may up that total to 2 billion. Potato purchases now total 900 million pounds, and that is also expected to double within five or six years, he said.

 Reading that coverage, one reader wrote me an e-mail and said this:

 I found it interesting that Mr. Jack Sinclair, VP Grocery, Wal-Mart stated that Wal-Mart buys 1 billion lbs. of bananas and 900 million lbs. of potatoes/year and expects that volume to double in the next 5 to 6 years. Did Mr. Sinclair say why they expect that volume to double? Store sales growth because of population growth, gaining market share, opening more stores or maybe a combination of these? I would be very interested to know how he can make that statement.

TK: I have no answers for our reader on that question, because Sinclair didn’t explain how these increased produce purchases would be accounted for. But the chain can’t have too many more quarters like the most recent one and still harbor those dreams. Customer satisfaction, not grand illusions of sustainability, are most critical. Wal-Mart’s long and impressive climb to the top has been as predictable as walking into the store, the sliding doors opening with a whoosh, and getting a friendly “Welcome to Wal-Mart” greeting. Uh, check that.