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Black Friday, Behind the Scenes: How Walmart Associates Pull it Off

By Elizabeth Walker, Walmart Corporate Affairs

This past Thanksgiving weekend in the U.S., in addition to enjoying meals with family, shoppers all over the country poured into stores — and logged on to websites — to score great deals on gifts. Many of those Americans turned to Walmart.

At the same time customers were transitioning from the family dinner table to holiday wish lists, Walmart stores were changing, too. Early on, they were up front with Thanksgiving groceries, but behind the scenes, associates were preparing for a rapid shift to Black Friday.

This kind of agility is something Walmart is proud of. So what all goes into pulling off this transformation? We visited a Walmart Supercenter in Secaucus, New Jersey, to capture a few behind-the-scenes snapshots.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

5:52 a.m.

Josh Strudl is running.

Well, technically he is walking…briskly. So briskly, in fact, the members of his management team must hurry to keep pace with the slender, energetic store manager.

With 36 hours until the Black Friday event at his Supercenter in Secaucus, NJ, Josh and his team don’t have a second to spare.

“Stock food. Stock food. Stock food,” Josh tells the assistant managers. It’s clear Josh has 73 different things on his mind – at least one for each department – as he gets his store ready for Thanksgiving weekend.

Thanksgiving is Walmart’s biggest food holiday. As America’s largest grocer, Walmart is responsible for helping shoppers get what they need to host holiday gatherings. But while Secaucus customers stream in and out of the store in preparation for the big meal, associates are simultaneously preparing for another big event: Black Friday, which begins this year at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving.

“We killed 31 pallets yesterday,” co-manager Rezarta Mucka tells me proudly. Today she is focused on “getting rid of freight in the back room and converting Action Alley into Black Friday.”

For Thursday night’s event, instead of seeing the main walkways filled with everyday items such as tissues, customers will encounter pallets of the season’s most giftable items, like toys or laptops. So essentially, the associates spend the first part of the week getting the store ready for Thanksgiving, transform the store quickly for Black Friday, and then flip it back just as quickly to a normal store.

It would be easy to leave this story there, to say that Walmart has two large events happening, Thanksgiving and Black Friday, and associates work really hard to pull them off. But remember, Walmart on any given day also sees customers coming in to pick up prescriptions, grab a new pair of sweatpants or stock up on protein powder.

Normal, day-to-day operations don’t stop for the holiday, and neither does Josh.

His teammates both admire and are baffled by his boundless energy. “He never stops to eat!” they laugh. “Or drink anything! Or go to the bathroom!”

This will be Josh’s 20th Black Friday with Walmart.

7:38 a.m.

At the department managers’ meeting, the leaders of each section stand in a circle, listening to instructions from assistant manager Tania Sanchez. Tania gives encouragement and direction twice – once in English, then again in Spanish. José, who manages electronics, does the same thing. When it is Rezarta’s turn, she gives her directions only in English, so Tania translates for her.

About 15% of Secaucus residents are native Spanish speakers, so it follows that Store #3520 would employ a number of associates for whom English is a second (or third) language. The associates in this meeting have all risen to leadership positions within the store. Thanks to their incredible and inspiring work ethic, some have been able to do so while speaking next to no English at all.

In this way, Secaucus is very much what Greg Foran, CEO of Walmart U.S., refers to as “a store of the community,” or a Walmart whose staff truly reflects the people it serves every day.

This is also made clear by the groceries stocked in anticipation of Thanksgiving. In addition to turkey and stuffing, there are 20-pound sacks of arroz enriquecido. In the fresh area, there are yucca as well as sweet potatoes. Near the registers, warmers hold Puerto Rican and sweet bread.

10:30 a.m.

Department manager Enid Ruiz has been with Walmart over 10 years. As a mother of five boys, she is more than qualified to run the toy department. She is known for colorful makeup, festive apparel and a near-constant smile.

Enid recently earned her bachelor’s degree and now is working on her master’s. Fluent in both Spanish and English, Enid’s eventual goal is to become a bilingual teacher.

For now, however, she is focused on one of the season’s most popular items, slime. “I know what you’re thinking,” she tells a customer. “But it really isn’t messy!”

It’s clear Enid knows her product, but what’s perhaps even more important is her understanding of what it is like to be a parent of a small child.

Her leadership sees this, too. Store Manager Josh says, “If I had more like her, I’d be really happy.”

Thursday, November 22

5:34 p.m.

The store is teeming with customers.

The queues of shoppers snake down aisles and around corners in anticipation of the sale, now minutes away. The associates wear brightly colored vests as they man pallets of highly-anticipated items. In the electronics department, dozens – hundreds! – of customers are lined up waiting to score phones.

Store Manager Josh is still hurrying among departments, but his eyes reveal he has had little sleep. In the wee hours of the morning, both forklifts went out. For a store that relies heavily on overnight stocking, this was a near disaster, and it meant his team ran behind.

But this evening, everything is on schedule. Store #3520 is buzzing with anticipation, and as the associates move to open the shrink-wrapped pallets, the customers dive in to fill up their carts and make someone’s Christmas wishes come true.

8:37 p.m.

“Josh, North Bergen is beating us,” Rezarta says into her walkie-talkie.

She and the leaders are able to track sales through an app on their phones. They can view not only the sales for their store but also what is going on at neighboring stores, such as North Bergen and Jersey City.

By this point, the initial frenzy of Black Friday has diminished, but customers are still in lines stretching back through the apparel department. Their carts are filled with toys – LEGO, LOL Surprise Dolls, Paw Patrol – and electronics.

Near the pharmacy, Maggie Proenza and her daughter examine the contents of their cart and make decisions about what to buy. Maggie explains that at the beginning of the sale, they grab whatever they think they might want, then decide before checkout what they actually want to purchase.

In the associate lounge, some Walmart associates are enjoying a catered meal provided by the store. It’s Cuban food: juicy chicken, rice dishes and sweet maduros, along with pies from the Walmart bakery and cans of Coke and Sprite.

The associate lounge buzzes with conversations in multiple languages. Many associates are discussing how they will spend their extra discount. Associates who work their entire scheduled shift on Thanksgiving Day as well as their scheduled shift before and after Thanksgiving Day receive an extra 15% off a basket of goods – that’s in addition to the 10% off they already receive.

A 25% discount is significant, and it’s a big part of why associates choose to work during the holiday. It’s also a way of taking part in what Steve Bratspies, Walmart’s Chief Merchandising Officer, calls, “the best shopping day of the year.”

Even Josh enjoys a tiny can of Schweppes seltzer to celebrate.

Friday, November 23

7:52 a.m.

The associates are putting the store back together again. They push carts of merchandise up and down the aisles, returning pillows, pajamas and PlayStations to their rightful places in the store.

Associates at the Secaucus Supercenter have a lot to be proud of. The store exceeded their Black Friday sales goals and saw consistent traffic throughout the weekend.

The weeks ahead will remain busy as customers get ready for the holiday season. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and Josh and his team are in it to win.