Walmart needs a new owner

Morning Cheer and Casual Day: In the huge Wertkauf department store in Oststeinbek, the new owner Wal-Mart has introduced US customs that need getting used to ■ Christine Holch

Anyone who goes shopping at “Wertkauf” in the Oststeinbek industrial park in the morning can witness an unusual event: There is an auditor standing in front of the workforce, stretching his fist and shouting: “Give me a woe!” And the salespeople and cashiers stretch their fists and call: "Weeh". Then they give him an A, an L, M, A, R, T - WAL-MART. “And who is number one?” “The customer”, people shout. And rush back to their workplaces in the huge self-service department store.

New customs have returned here, the US company since the beginning of the year Wal-Mart stores has taken over 21 German Wertkauf stores. Wal-Mart is the largest retail company in the world. And it makes twice as much turnover as the second largest, Metro from Cologne, which also operates worldwide. Now the German retail industry is trembling before the giant with the low prices.

The employees in the Hamburg market at the Öjendorf motorway exit were also afraid of the Americans. Industry insiders describe the corporate culture of Wal-Mart as a mixture of religion, grassroots democracy and tough business. In Germany, however, the foreign customs are carefully introduced. “Some things take a lot of getting used to,” says one employee.

For example the "Morning Cheer", the morning scream roll call. This should strengthen the sense of togetherness in the workforce. Good and beautiful, say some employees. “But do we have to do this in front of the customers? Can't we go to the warehouse for that? ”Meanwhile, the cheer is only started on special occasions, for example to crown the best cashier of the month - this is also a new custom. The winner is then allowed to wear a vest with the inscription “Star Cashier of the Month”. But it doesn't have to, says the new Hamburg managing director Nils Nikolai.

He trims the Wertkauf market to Wal-Mart format. He is supported by the American David Lorentz. This brings in many American customs, such as “Casual Day”: on Fridays, managers do not face their employees in ties and ties, but in casual trousers and denim shirts. This is of course a Wal-Mart shirt with an embroidered slogan: “Yes we can.” For example, the market opens at seven instead of nine. Service for working people. "We have a good increase," says Nikolai. That is to say: it is popular.

Nikolai and his American advisor agree that not all elements of the American strategy for success are transferable. Greetings at the entrance, for example, the greeters, who are often retired in the USA, will probably not be around. In contrast, the “three-meter rule” also applies in Hamburg: every customer who is no more than three meters away from the seller should be greeted and asked if he needs help. Actually, every employee should also carry a label: “Ask me.” But the label printing machine has only just been delivered.

Wal-Mart employees are urged to be customer-friendly. But company founder Sam Walton also knew that this only works if the employees are treated kindly by their superiors. This also includes, like recently in Hamburg, a joint barbecue. Or a “crazy hat” competition: the employees come to work with funny hats. The craziest is awarded a prize.

The employees are consequently called “associates”, partners. For manager Nikolai, partnership also means informing his 600 people about sales figures or shop renovations not on the bulletin board or via the department heads, but directly in the daily morning meetings.

The 36 year old, who has only been the managing director here for three weeks, hunts non-stop through his shop. So much has to be done. And he is allowed to do a lot: The local Wal-Mart managers have more freedom of choice than the previous Wertkauf managers. Nikolai gets new ideas from the Wal-Mart homepage on the Internet. What he finds there he hangs up, such as the "qualities of a good serving manager:" Listen to the employees and ask them for their opinion. "

Nikolai spends an hour at most in his sparsely furnished office every day for the post office. Otherwise he is "downstairs" in the shop. Whoever he encounters among the employees, he shakes hands. And he always has a word of praise. "The Dresden Stollen are really great," he says to a shy young employee. And the trainee in the beverage department is praised for wanting to help with the “decoration”: “It has a very beautiful font”.

The doors to management are always open, employees' ideas are welcome, according to a Wal-Mart principle. At first, the Wertkauf employees could hardly believe it. In the meantime they have "really blossomed", reports the young co-manager Torsten Schröder. He is now being approached at every corner: "Mr. Schröder, I have another idea." Whether you could not set up a bench between the landings to the upper floor, for older customers. And already there is a brown-red plastic bench.

The photo of Bernd Zipfel from the bulk purchasing department hangs over the potato sacks. His favorite, the sign says, is the German table potato “Back & amp; Grill ", a" super tuber at a discount rate "- five kilos at 3.96. Each employee should choose an article that he would like to recommend. Ron Tiarks, Germany manager at Wal-Mart, sets a good example and recommends Birkenstock women's mules. Shy people can also fall back on an alarm yellow star sticker: “Simply good” indicates such a sticker with shaky handwriting on Brandt's breakfast biscuits. "Something like that strengthens the employees' identification with the products," says Nikolai soberly.

Customers are tied to the market with other measures. Signs at the entrance say: “Best price guaranteed. Should you still get a branded item cheaper within a radius of 30 kilometers, we will make the same price. "

Instead of selling small quantities at high prices, Wal-Mart takes large quantities from manufacturers and demands high discounts in return. The low purchase price is passed on to the customers, sales and profit over the masses. "Since the takeover, we have lowered the price of thousands of Wertkauf products," claims spokesman Dale Ingram in Arkansas, the headquarters of the Wal-Mart group. This often leads to unusual price displays: instead of the standard 2.69 marks, 2.33 marks are required for Nutella. The German retail industry is watching the new competitor with horror. One fears a ruinous price war. Who will Wal-Mart buy up next?

So far, the German food retail trade has been spared by foreign corporations. Because German customers are well catered for with shops right down to the surface. The competition is therefore fiercer than in any other European country: from 100 marks in sales, a profit of 0.7 percent or less remains, or 70 pfennigs. Foreign companies are used to eight percent returns.

Wal-Mart relies on "permanent low prices", computerized sales and a consistent service philosophy. Recently, this also includes decorating. So far, self-service store customers have had to do without that. The Hamburg manager Nikolai proudly points to the high shelves, the top shelves of which were previously used as replacement storage. In the sports section of the market they have now been cleared and decorated with a number of children's bicycles. “Buy an experience!” Says Nikolai. And the pants no longer hang one behind the other on meter-long poles. In the women's department, shop assistants are currently equipping a four-armed rack with trousers and matching blouses, and even draping a scarf around the collar. “Themed sales!” Says Nikoai. This is how the big marketing buzzwords of the department stores arrive in the lowlands of the self-service markets.

But this service has a different meaning: at the entrance there are free balloons for the little ones. More than a nice touch. Nikolai explains that customers shouldn't steal the metallic-green helium balloons that mark the reorganized men's fashion area. "They cost two marks each."