By Sarah Nassauer 

Walmart Inc. executives weighed in on a range of topics at the company's annual shareholder meeting Wednesday, from the global coronavirus pandemic and the retailer's role in healing America's racial wounds to out-of-stock products and the intense demand for puzzles.

The company's 50th shareholder meeting was held over a conference-call line, one of several signs of unusual times. The annual gathering typically draws tens of thousands of Walmart workers to its Bentonville, Ark., headquarters for a festive affair with musical performances and pep-rally-style presentations from executives.

"Obviously we are meeting under extraordinary circumstances," said Walmart Chairman Greg Penner to kick off the hourlong call. "There is the pandemic which we have been responding and adapting to for the past months, but also we are meeting under the shadow being cast by the violence of racism which is tearing at our country."

Walmart Chief Executive Doug McMillon has been more willing than his predecessors to wade into social and political debates, as American workers broadly have begun to expect their bosses to be more vocal about causes they care about. Mr. McMillon has spoken out in favor of gay rights and limiting the sale of guns and ammunition in Walmart stores.

"The killing of George Floyd is tragic, painful and unacceptable," said Mr. McMillon on Wednesday. "It's important that we all understand that our problems as a nation run much deeper than one horrible event."

At least a dozen Walmart stores have been damaged as some protests in support of racial equality turned violent in recent days. Walmart closed hundreds of stores pre-emptively earlier this week, a spokesman said at the time.

After years of debate, earlier this week a Walmart spokeswoman said the company helped broker a deal to move the confederate soldier statue, erected in 1908 in the center of downtown Bentonville, Ark., blocks from Walmart headquarters.

Mr. McMillon said that the coronavirus pandemic has put strain on Walmart's workforce and supply chain. More than 270,000 of Walmart's 1.5 million U.S. employees have taken coronavirus-related leave in recent months, he said. The country's largest private employer has hired over 300,000 workers to keep up, many of them on a temporary basis, he said.

Surging demand hasn't been limited to food and household goods. The company also has struggled to keep shelves stocked with crafts, fabric and puzzles, Mr. McMillon said. "We are working intensely to recover our in-stock position," he said.

Walmart is ramping up its health-care services to meet the needs of the pandemic, said executives. Walmart currently has 187 drive-through Covid-19 testing sites in 31 states, said Mr. McMillon, and is exploring ways to test its workforce, including antibody testing.

The rapid consumer shift to online buying in recent months as more Americans stayed home will likely linger longer-term, said executives. Amid the pandemic Walmart is adding more, sometimes faster, online delivery windows for shoppers, said Mr. McMillon.

"It's been really successful and we are scaling it further," he said. "I think it's here to stay."

Write to Sarah Nassauer at


(END) Dow Jones Newswires

June 03, 2020 16:19 ET (20:19 GMT)

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