Walmart (WMT) kicked off its 50th annual meeting of shareholders by addressing the killing of George Floyd that has sparked global outrage, with its leaders denouncing systemic racism and police brutality.
Floyd, a black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes, lit the spark of mass protests across the U.S. With other major brands embracing the moment, Walmart used its annual confab to address the controversy directly.
Walmart, which now employs 2.35 million people worldwide, usually puts on a week-long, star-studded celebration that convenes thousands of company associates in the retailer’s hometown of Bentonville, Arkansas. However, this year’s meeting, held virtually due to the pandemic, lasted only one hour.
In the opening remarks, chairman of the board Greg Penner immediately called the death of Floyd “senseless,” insisting that Walmart has a “role to play in helping create a more just and fair country.”
Penner added that they would work “to ensure we uphold and strengthen diversity and inclusion within our company.”
Walmart’s CEO Doug McMillon, who’s taken on a more high-profile role as the newest chair of The Business Roundtable, also described Floyd’s killing “tragic, painful, and unacceptable.”
In prepared remarks, McMillon stated: “It’s important that we all understand that our problems as a nation run much deeper than one horrible event.
He added: “The pain we are feeling reminds us of the need to support each other and come together. Until, we as a nation, confront and address these hard realities, we will never achieve the best of what we can be.” McMillon also declared inclusion as “fundamental” to Walmart’s culture and values and the retailer will remain committed to those efforts.
“We’re motivated to continue our work related to diversity and inclusion inside our company and to finding ways to influence the various systems that exist in our country in a more impactful, positive, and inclusive way,” McMillon added.
Response to protests, pandemic
The CEO went on to outline his five priorities, which include supporting associates; serving customers; helping communities; managing the financial and operational outlook in the short-term; and driving strategy forward during a crisis.
Walmart, which has seen its sales both in-store and online jump during the COVID-19 pandemic, said it has experienced some inventory loss and physical damage to a small number of its stores from looting during the protests — which McMillon said was a small percent of its retail footprint.
“And the team has done a really good job of keeping our associates and customers safe,” McMillon said during a question and answer session.
“We've been pretty aggressive as it relates to closing stores, closing stores early, and that's what we'll continue to do through the crisis. We'll just focus on associate and customer safety and then recover as we did beyond that,” he added.
At the meeting, McMillon said that since March 19, Walmart added 300,000 associates, mostly in temporary or part-time roles, across its stores, clubs, and distribution centers.
The retailer has had to keep up with soaring demand and to provide employment to those who lost their jobs as the pandemic wreaked havoc on the economy. Walmart also doled out cash bonuses to its workers and expanded benefits during the pandemic.
McMillon also acknowledged that some associates have died from the virus. “We mourn the loss some of our own,” he said.
During the pandemic, Walmart opened 187 COVID testing sites across 31 states. Walmart also rolled out its “Express Delivery” service, which brings orders in under two hours, across 1,000 stores. That number will double by the end of June, he said.
What’s more, as automation and technology change the nature of jobs, especially in retail, McMillon emphasized that Walmart “will always be a people business.” That is expected to continue as technology changes the nature of retail.
“We've got to prepare our associates for the future of work, our businesses around the world. And as countries, we need to all continue to drive productivity,” McMillon said.
“But as we do that, we want to bring our people along. We want them to be trained and equipped to, be ready for change and understand the new system that we're trying to build,” he added.
Julia La Roche is a Correspondent at Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter.