Case Study: Wal-Mart’s Failure in Germany

Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. is the largest retailer in the world, the world’s second-largest company and the nation’s largest non-governmental employer.  Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. operates retail stores in various retailing formats in all 50 states in the United States. The Company’s mass merchandising operations serve its customers primarily through the operation of three segments. The Wal-Mart Stores segment includes its discount stores, Supercenters, and Neighborhood Markets in the United States. The Sam’s club segment includes the warehouse membership clubs in the United States. The Company’s subsidiary, McLane Company, Inc. provides products and distribution services to retail industry and institutional foodservice customers. Wal-Mart serves customers and members more than 200 million times per week at more than 8,416 retail units under 53 different banners in 15 countries. With fiscal year 2010 sales of $405 billion, Wal-Mart employs more than 2.1 million associates worldwide. Nearly 75% of its stores are in the United States, but Wal-Mart is expanding internationally.  The Group is engaged in the operations of retail stores located in all 50 states of the United States, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Japan, Puerto Rico and the United Kingdom, Central America, Chile, Mexico,India and China.

Wal-Mart’s Failure in Germany

Wal-Mart’s Entry and Operation in Germany

Wal-Mart’s initial entry into German market was through the acquisitions of renowned 21 store Wertkauf chain for an estimated $1.04 billion in December 1997.It was  followed one year later by the acquisition of In-terspar’s 74 hypermarkets from Spar Handels AG, the German unit of the French Intermarché Group , for €560 million. Thus Wal-Mart immediately became the country’s fourth biggest operator of hypermarkets. However, with a turnover of around €2.9 billion, and a stagnating market share of just 1.1 per cent, the US giant still was a negligible one in the German retail market. Even worse, with estimated accumulated losses of more than € 1 billion, it is literally drowning in red ink although, according to Wal-Mart Germany’s CEO, Kay Hafner, its non food assortment, which accounts for around 50 per cent of its revenues, is profitable. Instead of expanding its network of stores by 50 units by early 2001, as originally planned, the company has been forced to close two big outlets, while at the same time it was only able to fully remodel three locations into its flagship Super center format. Due to its problems the company also had to lay off around 1.000 staff. On July 2006, Wal-Mart announced  its official defeat in Germany and  would sell its 85 German stores to the rival supermarket chain Metro and would book a pre-tax loss of about $1 billion (£536 million) on the failed venture.

A Critical Analysis of Reasons for Wal-Mart’s Failure in Germany

There were several factors that contributed to Wal-Mart’s Failure in Germany. Amazing management blunders have plagued Wal-Mart’s German operation from the very start. Wal-Mart’s major mistakes on the German market may be summarized as follows.

  • Cultural Insensitivity was the major reason of failure.
  • Entry to German market by acquisition strategy.
  • Failure to deliver on its legendary “every-day low prices” and “excellent service” value  proposition.
  • Bad Publicity about the company due to breaking of some prevailing German law and regulations.

In January 1997, Wal-Mart had first entry in Europe market with the acquisition of Wertkauf hypermarkets in Germany.  Later in that year, Wal-Mart also acquired Interspar, another German hypermarket chain. While its first move – the 1997 takeover of the 21 Wertkaufstores  was indeed a shrewd one, given that company’s excellent earnings, its competitive locations, and its very capable management. Wal-Mart’s 1998 follow-updeal with Spar for 74 hypermarkets was widely judged an ill-informed, ill-advised act, for several reasons. Spar is considered to be the weakest player on the German market due to its mostly run-down stores, very heterogeneous in size and format, with the majority of them located in less well-off inner-city residential areas.

Wal-Mart’s cultural insensitivity led to its failure in Germany.

Wal-Mart’s Failure in Germany – A Case of Cultural Insensitivity

Most of the Global mergers and acquisitions failed to produce any benefit for the shareholders or reduced value, which was mainly due to the lack of intercultural competence. Lack of sensitivity and understanding of language barriers, local traditions, consumer behavior, merchandising, and employment practices irreversibly damaged Wal-Mart’s image in Germany. One of the main reasons that failed Wal-Mart in Germany is when it attempted to transport the company’s unique culture and retailing concept to the new country. The top management refused to even acknowledge the differences in customer behavior and culture in Germany when compared to its US customers, and the top management failed to listen to the feedback from its employees. Not every new cross- border retailer can be a retail giant outer its home.  The mistake of exporting its culture wholesale, rather than adapting to local market, leads Wal-Mart failed in Germany market.

Wal-Mart’s ambitions to position itself profitably in European markets through Germany have been hit badly by their inability to fully understand and to adapt to the specific conditions of doing business in other countries. This exposed their obvious lack of intercultural competence and management skills. The main challenge of post-merger integration is further complicated significantly if it is in a Cross-border Merger or acquisition, with all issues frequently being compounded by a lack of language and culture bridging skills. Failure to accomplish this task satisfactorily, results in mutual distrust, de-motivation and negatively impacts the merged companies’ competitiveness, profits and shareholder value. This is exactly what happened to Wal-Mart Germany.

Following are the main two factors that contributed to the Wal-Mart’s Failure in Germany;

1) Specific Difference in German Consumer behavior and Culture in comparison with US consumers:

The biggest mistake of Wal-Mart was to ignore the local culture, local buying habits and impose an American boss on its German operations. Wal-Mart stores are designed for customers who are willing to spend lot of time shopping. But in Germany, the shopping hours are shorter: Shops close by 5 PM on weekdays, and no shopping on Sundays. This meant that customers don’t have the habit of spending lots of time in a store – wandering around for the things they need. Coupled with this problem, German customers do not like to be assisted by Wal-Mart’s friendly store assistants. Germans prefer to do their own search for bargains. Instead of understanding and adjusting to the culture of its clients, Wal-Mart tried to impose their Culture on to the Customers, which never worked out.

Germans like to see the advertised discount products upfront without having to ask the store assistant. This implies that the discount products must be placed at the eye level. Instead Wal-Mart chose to use its US style merchandise display strategy – where premium priced products are kept at eye level and discount products are kept at higher shelf or in the bottom racks. This irritated the German shoppers. Wal-Mart also got its store inventory wrong, Wal-Mart stocked its store with clothes, hardware, electronics and other non-food products were given much bigger floor space than food products, as a result more than 50% of the revenue was from non-food products. But other German retailers stock more of food products. For example for Metro, food products constitute more than 75% of the revenue. Germans prefer to bag groceries themselves into reusable carriers, or at least to pay a small fee for the avoidable sin of needing a plastic bag.

German’s are introvert in nature and doesn’t like display of emotion in public, as they always care for their private personal space. Employees, like the reserved customers, didn’t care for Wal-Mart’s public displays of corporate moral such as the morning cheer. The German Customer’s even didn’t liked to be accompanied by the Cheerful employees either, as they would like to make choices by themselves. These are cultural misunderstandings as well, but one could say the cultural philosophy of Wal-Mart could not survive in the context of a German culture with a Happy Planet Index significantly higher than America’s.

2) Inefficient Top Management which ignored the relevance of local Culture:

It was clear that the cultural insensitivity of Wal-Mart started right at the top management. To begin with, it appointed four CEOs during its first four years of operation. The first head of German operations was Rob Tiarks, an expat from the USA – who did not understand Germany or its culture. He had previously supervised around 200 Supercenters in America. Not only did he not speak any German. Due to his unwillingness to learn the language, English was soon decreed as the official company language at the management level. He also ignores the complexities and the legal framework of the German retail market, ignoring any strategic advice presented to him by former Wertkauf executives. This has resulted in the resignation of top three management executives from Wertkauf. His successors were also unsuccessful in integrating German Outlets with the Wal-Mart’s Business model and culture.

Other Reasons of Failure

A number of factors that resulted Wal-Mart’s failure in Germany are such as different corporate culture, political influence, stiff competition and inefficient management and marketing strategies. Firstly, David Wild, Wal-Mart’s CEO in 2004, believed that cultural differences between American and German consumers were considerable challenges to Wal-Mart. Debby, CEO in 2006, concluded that German shoppers are accustomed to shop at small scale discount stores such as Aldi and Netto that provides a limited range of products with special offers each week and no customer service, unlike US customers. In addition to different corporate culture, the competition has become gradually more intense between Wal-Mart and domestic retailers. The price difference has so lessened that sometimes even Wal-Mart had a higher price than their competitors. Consequently, consumers had little incentive to visit Wal-Mart Germany because of no obvious price advantage.

Some other factors that lead to Wal-Mart’s failure in Germany were, their strategy of acquiring the top competitor did not work, as the German government did its best to ensure the welfare of the domestic players. Also, due to wage restrictions, Wal-Mart could not practice wage bargaining, as it did back in U.S, this was a huge, uncommon expenditure for the company. Its American strategy of restricting employee freedom and forcing them to work extra hours, brought up problems of high labour turnover and a negative image as an employer. Wal-Mart failed to have an effective management at the top level. It’s CEO’s changed every year,this in an obvious way effected the company’s performance. Wal-Mart constantly ignored the strictness of German laws, and was charged heavy penalties for doing so. One of the most challenging thing for Wal-Mart was capturing the market- share. As per German legislation it was illegal to sell products below cost,because of which Wal-Mart could never achieve the ‘Low price leader’ tag.

It is impossible to smoothly run any organization, until there is co-operation between the employees and the employer. Wal-Mart faced a severe labour unrest,which hampered its brand-image. Kay Hafner,CEO of Wal-Mart reduced the wages to cut cost, this negatively influenced individual behaviour , as an anti-union decision. As suggested by Arndt and Knorr, a firm needs to understand the specifications when indulging in global expansion.Out of all the CEO’s, only David Wild has been sensitive to cultural difference.He did bring about changes based on this understanding,which had some positive results,yet not profitable enough to impress investors for future investments.

Moreover,as per German legislation their were some specific retail related laws,such as, limited legal working hours (80 hours/week) which were way less than the other European countries and had strict rules governing closure on Sunday’s and holidays. Wal-Mart repeatedly infringement German laws but were able to do away with it mainly because of global presence and influence on the government of US which played a major role in global politics. Some of incidences where the company broke few laws and was able to get away are summed up below:

  1. ‘Unfair trade’ practices such as selling goods below the cost price was prohibited in Germany but Wal-Mart was found violating these laws as it randomly sold some product below cost.
  2. German law required a company to disclose it financial statements annually, Wal-Mart seldom did that and was spared without any fine or legal proceedings at number of occasions.
  3. Obligatory Deposit Regulation’s law stipulated the retailer to provide deposit-refund-system on few products like metal beverages, cans etc. But Wal-Mart never followed this law.

Thus from the above incidences it can be concluded that Wal-Mart used its global influence to refrain from some of the German laws.

However, because German culture is quite different from American culture and because of unfamiliarity with the legislation, it would be difficult for Wal-Mart to make marketing and promotion right. And in fact these difficulties had been proved in Wal-Mart Germany. Consequently, rather than choosing Germany as the gateway to Europe, virtually after two years of operating in Germany it had entered in U.K. Even though U.K is not in the Euro zone and its geographic location is less favorable than Germany, it has a similar culture and legal environment as U.S. which makes it easier to operate the company’s business and strategies. It has considerable success in the UK market which is called by as a ‘Wal-Mart-ready’ market. Therefore, the lessons learned from from Wal-Mart’s failure in Germany has proven useful for U.K.

Suggestions and Recommendations

Cross-border, Cross-cultural business is a challenge even for the biggest companies. Companies have to be sensitive to the local cultures and tailor their offerings to local market. To localize their offerings, Wal-Mart and other Companies that are going global companies must carry out cultural assessment of the Citizens of the Country before acquisitions. All their Corporate Business and Communication strategies should be based on this cultural assessment. This will help companies measure the effectiveness of its localization efforts and make adequate changes in local strategy & tactics as and when required. Considering the following steps would help Wal-Mart or any other Company while they are on lookout of Global alliance or business.

1. Political, Social, Economic and Cultural Analysis of the Country

Before expanding its business operations to a new country, the Company should understand the Political, Social, Economic and cultural aspects of the Country in depth. Wal-Mart’s case, Germany was selected primarily because of a central European location and economic attractiveness of the Wertkauf acquisition. But a serious research would have shown that Germany had strong national values resistant to change; possibly the most deeply rooted retail traditions in Western Europe. This could have avoided either Wal-Mart’s selection of the Country or the strategies it has adopted in Germany.

2. Go global and think they are local

After conducting an in depth research about the prevailing trends in the customer’s Country, the Company should be ready to modify its own identity to suit itself to the cultural differences without compromising much on its Corporate Mission. This step will also force organizations to clearly define globalization goals. Wal-Mart put the company name on many German stores before being fully established. Immediately, the run down stores left an impression on consumers who formed a negative image of the Wal-Mart name.

3. Employment of Cross-Cultural Management approaches

Employment of Hofsted’s Culture Dimensions or HT&T Analysis will help Companies in understanding the minute cultural differences between the countries. For example,Communitarianism over Individualism

Germans degree of communitarianism is on the higher side mainly because Germans prefer participating on a team. Most Germans see business as a group of related persons working together. But, most of Americans see their company as a set of functions, tasks, people, machines and payments in which individuals compete.

This difference in Cultural dimensions between the 2 countries has resulted in inside management conflict among the employees, which also resulted in resignation of efficient German executives from Wal-Mart post integration.

Understanding the cultural dimensions of a Country through proven Cross-Culture models will always help a company to formulate a specific approach that will encourage team spirit and joy among the Global Team.

4. Continuous Updation of Strategies to successfully withstand the local competition

It is very important for a Global firm to continuously analyse the impact of their various strategies on the local market. Understand the shortfalls, and modify it in such a way as to cater the local market in a much better way than the competitors. It is always better to scrutinize the strategies adopted by them with a panel of local experts, as they will be having a better picture about the local consuming behavior and culture. Perceptions do matter a lot, So a surveys to find the customer’s perception about the company will also help them to change their strategies accordingly.