Michelle Obama visited a Walmart in February to extol the fresh, healthy food in the company’s grocery aisles.
But Walmart, Obama’s corporate partner in a campaign to make food healthier and more affordable, has been running into problems with food that is not so fresh.
Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer and grocer, has cut so many employees that it no longer has enough workers to stock its shelves properly, according to some employees and industry analysts. Internal notes from a March meeting of top Walmart managers show the company grappling with low customer confidence in its produce and poor quality.
“Lose Trust,” reads one note, “Don’t have items they are looking for — can’t find it.”
Walmart is addressing the grocery concerns with measures like a new inventory system and signs that will help employees figure out what is fresh and what is not, said Jack L. Sinclair, Walmart’s U.S. executive vice president for food. Brooke Buchanan, a company spokeswoman, said Walmart felt its stores were fully staffed.
Before the recession, at the start of 2007, Walmart had an average of 338 employees per store at its U.S. stores and Sam’s Club locations. Now, it has 281 per store, having cut the number of U.S. employees while adding hundreds of stores.
“In its larger supercenter stores, Walmart can’t keep the shelves stocked, and that is driving customers away,” said Terrie Ellerbee, associate editor at the grocery industry publication the Shelby Report, in an email.
She traced the problem to 2010, after Walmart reduced the range of merchandise it carried in an attempt to make stores less cluttered. Customers did not like the change, and Walmart added merchandise back, but with declining sales then, it did not add back employees, she said.
“Without enough labor hours to get those items back, not to mention to do routine stocking, shelves were left bare,” Ellerbee said.