Can a new CEO rescue Wal-Mart’s U.S. sales?

July 25, 2014, 1:57 PM UTC
Photograph by Robyn Beck — AFP/Getty Images

On Thursday, Wal-Mart (WMT) seemed to be playing the part of a losing sports team looking to turn things around by ousting the head coach. The Bentonville, Arkansas-based retail giant announced that it had hired a new chief executive to oversee its struggling U.S. stores.

Greg Foran, the current CEO of Walmart China, will take over Walmart U.S. for Bill Simon, who has held the position since 2010 and will be leaving the company. The moves comes nearly six months after Doug McMillon took over for a retiring Mike Duke as CEO of all of Wal-Mart.

In many ways, you can think of Simon’s departure as a natural reaction from someone who has been passed over for the company’s top job. “We had considered Simon as a potential candidate to replace Walmart’s former CEO, Mike Duke, but Doug McMillon was given the nod over Simon,” according to a note from investor research firm Morningstar. “We aren’t completely surprised by Simon’s departure.”

Financial services firm Cowen and Company in its own release said that it was “surprised that [Simon] stuck around for so long, as we thought he would want to start the clock on his 2-year non-compete as quickly as possible.”

Walmart Vice President of Communications David Tovar confirmed as much to Fortune. “Doug and Bill were two internal candidates for the top job. Doug got the job and, in those situations, it’s not uncommon for the person who didn’t get it to ultimately leave the company and go somewhere else.”

Wal-Mart, in its statement announcing the management change, praised Simon for leading a “turnaround that reinvigorated the company’s focus on everyday low costs, everyday low prices and an increased product assortment,” in his time as U.S. CEO.

Simon introduced the retail giant’s $4 prescriptions, increased its focus on healthier foods, and led a successful makeover of its apparel department by shifting to more athletically inspired gear, says Faye Landes of Cowen and Company.

But Simon’s track record at Wal-Mart has also been marred by struggling U.S. sales. “We know that our U.S. business is critical to the success of our company and that it can be even stronger,” McMillon said in a letter to Wal-Mart employees on Thursday. “[Foran] will bring fresh eyes to an increasingly competitive market that is changing rapidly.”

That’s a nice way of putting it.

Foran faces a daunting challenge. The company’s latest quarterly earnings revealed the fifth straight decline in U.S. sales, which factored into the retailer’s 5% drop in profits for the quarter ending April 30.

Competition from online retailers like and evolving shopping patterns among Americans—who are now making more frequent trips to dollar and drug stores—are partly to blame for the slumping sales. Tovar, Wal-Mart’s spokesman, told Fortune on Thursday, that Foran will continue the store’s ongoing strategy to address those concerns: opening smaller, 10,000 to 40,000 square-foot stores like Walmart Express and Neighborhood Markets and further embracing e-commerce.

Burt Flickinger, a retail consultant at Strategic Resource Group, for his part, attributed Wal-Mart’s poor U.S. performance in the past several quarters to “self-sabotage,” mainly its decision to cut worker hours and its well-publicized refusal to significantly raise workers wages—two big reasons why Flinckinger says Wal-Mart’s stores are increasingly sloppy and sparsely stocked. (Last year, Wal-Mart launched a program aimed at giving workers more access to open shifts.)

Underlying all of these factors is one that’s completely out of any CEO’s control: “A lot of [the declining U.S. sales] has to do, quite simply, with the fact that [Walmart’s] business is skewed to the lower-end consumer, and that consumer is still hurting,” says Landes.

Indeed. According to a 2013 study from economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty, the top 1% of Americans earned more than one-fifth of all the income earned by Americans in 2012. And for the first two years of the recovery, the mean net worth of households in the wealthiest 7% rose by an estimated 28%, while the mean net worth of households in the lower 93% dropped by 4%, according to the Pew Research Center. These trends have made a dent into consumer confidence: the majority of Americans did not report feeling good about the amount of money they had to spend until their income reached the $60,000-a-year mark, according to a Gallup poll conducted last year.

Low-earning customers are still “buying less discretionary items,” says Lande, and they’re resorting to cost-saving tactics when purchasing goods they must have, like “trading down from beef to poultry.”

And don’t think Wal-Mart hasn’t noticed. “Fundamental dynamics haven’t changed, and household incomes are still flat,” Simon said during the retailer’s earnings call in May. “As we head toward the political season and rhetoric heats up, it will continue to challenge consumer confidence.”

Does that mean that Wal-Mart’s chances for a U.S. sales rebound are nil, save for a full economic recovery? Not necessarily, mainly because the company has a perpetual advantage: its 4,200 U.S. stores still move enough goods to offer customers competitive prices, says Ken Perkins of Morningstar.

For that same reason, though, a turnaround won’t be easy. With that big an operation running on such small margins, it’s difficult to generate sales growth. Losing a sale or customer here or there can make a noticeable difference, Perkins says. “It’s hard to move a ship the size of Wal-Mart in the right direction,” he said.