Wal-Mart returns to 'Buy American' roots. Really?

@CNNMoney May 12, 2011: 4:47 PM ET
Wal-Mart, shoppers, money

Wal-Mart says a vast majority of goods now sold at its stores are made in the United States.

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- Wal-Mart's CEO, Mike Duke, shocked an industry gathering recently when he said a majority of the retailer's products are now made in the United States.

Industry experts have their doubts.

Wal-Mart's founder Sam Walton started the company as a "Buy American" retailer some 50 years ago but it turned away from that strategy in the name of offering cheaper prices. That's apparent in Wal-Mart's newest tagline, which stresses that it offers "Low prices. Every day. On everything."

So, has it really become a born-again "Made in the USA" company? And if so, does that mean cash-strapped Wal-Mart shoppers will see higher prices?

Wal-Mart's (WMT, Fortune 500) U.S. push is more likely a matter of the mix of the products it's selling and how Americans are shopping, industry observers say, than a sign that it's returning to its patriotic roots.

Lately, Wal-Mart shoppers are focused on buying basics like groceries, which often come from the U.S. They're not really spending on other goods, like foreign-made electronics and clothes the discounter used to be known for.

So the retailer is adapting.

It's no longer the destination of choice for cheap T-shirts and televisions. It's now mainly a huge supermarket where shoppers are loading up on fruits, vegetables and household products produced in the U.S.

Wal Mart says 54% of its total sales currently come from groceries and household goods such as detergent and paper towels. And most of those goods are American-made, said Wal-Mart spokesman David Tovar.

At the same time, the retail giant's dependence on foreign-made general goods is shrinking.

Just 7% of its sales last year came from clothes, down 1% from the prior year; 12% from electronics, also down 1% from the prior year; and 5% from home-related merchandise. These items generally come from overseas.

Wal-Mart brings guns back

"If Wal-Mart says it's sourcing more from the United States, it's happening by default," said Craig Johnson, president of independent consulting firm Customer Growth Partners.

His firm conducts weekly price checks at Wal-Mart and Target (TGT, Fortune 500) stores on 55 grocery and general merchandise items such as milk, fresh food, detergents, clothes, toys and medicines.

It also tracks where those products come from.

"A vast majority of [Wal-Mart's] groceries, household goods and health and beauty products are made in the United States," he said.

Scott Paul, executive director at the Alliance for American Manufacturing, said Duke's comment is more complicated than it seems.

"I'm not going to dispute that Wal-Mart's product mix has changed to favor more groceries and household goods," said Paul, adding that most of those products are sourced in America.

Outside of those categories, Paul said retailers, including Wal-Mart, haven't made a massive shift back to domestic suppliers.

"Wal-Mart was the trendsetter in persuading American manufacturers to outsource," he said. "It would be nice to see them lead the reshoring fad. But there's scant evidence of it yet."

Still, Paul notes a very nascent trend of some American companies pulling sourcing out of China due to rising production, labor and shipping costs.

"That's begun to happen in the auto industry. I think it will trickle into consumer products, too," he said.

But the challenge there is that the United States doesn't have enough manufacturing capacity to shore up domestic production of other consumer goods like clothing, shoes, toys and electronics overnight, said Paul.

Still, Wal-Mart maintains that it's selling more American-made and American grown products everyday.

Duke said that "the vast majority of our units sold are produced in the U.S."

A "unit" is each individual apple, orange, milk jug, baked good, detergent bottle, or paper towel roll. These are among the most popular items that people are buying in weekly trips to Wal-Mart. Most of these high volume items are made in America, Tovar said.

That doesn't mean that 50% of the merchandise found in the store is produced in America, just that most of what's being bought is.

But Wal-Mart couldn't provide numbers to back up exactly how many of each unique product item sold today at its stores are domestically produced vs. imported.

Wal-Mart selling more homegrown food: As Wal-Mart tries to adapt its business to how its consumers are shopping, Tovar said the discounter is buying more fresh fruits and vegetables from American farms and plans to double orders to domestic farmers by 2015.

"We're going to farmers and saying we'll buy [their] whole orchard," Tovar said. "We take their best apples and sell them as eating apples. The others that aren't so good we'll turn into apple juice or sauce and sell it under our Great Value label."

Sourcing locally allows Wal-Mart's customers get fresher products faster and "at better cost," he said. Wal-Mart benefits by paying less for fuel and shipping.

In turn, Wal-Mart said it's able to pay farmers more and still sell the goods at lower prices vs. competitors.

Burt Flickinger, a leading Wal-Mart expert and managing director of retail consulting firm Strategic Resource Group, isn't buying it.

Wal-Mart: Our shoppers are running out of money

Wal-Mart's has said its shoppers are running out of money faster than they were a year ago.

At a time when the discounter is striving to cut costs amid seven consecutive quarters of declining U.S. store sales, Flickinger said it's hard to believe that Wal-Mart would stop buying goods from countries where they pay the absolute lowest price.

"Low price is paramount to Wal-Mart, especially now that it is under immense pressure to improve profits. Wal-Mart is still aggressively buying low-priced foreign goods," he said.

Still, Tovar maintained that Wal-Mart is selling more products -- beyond just food and toilet paper -- that are made in the United States.

"While we continue to source from many countries, we are selling more items every day that are sourced in the United States," he said.

He said the discounter is buying dry goods, light bulbs, outdoor furniture, rifles and shotguns, plastic storage containers, charcoal, books, air filters, coolers and household cleaning products from companies that make these products in America.

But the experts say Wal-Mart still has a long way to go to return to its Made in the USA roots.

"There's nothing wrong with supporting local vendors," said Johnson, the Wal-Mart price tracker. "But to think that Wal-Mart will return to its all-American philosophy, that isn't going to happen." To top of page

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