Well versed in Walmart’s EDLP mantra, will Asda’s new CMO, Charles Redfield, be able to address Asda’s issues with food quality, asks Ronan Hegarty

It was a frank admission. Some even described it as a 'Gerald Ratner' moment, after Asda president and CEO Andy Clarke admitted that the quality of the retailer's food offer was not up to scratch.

But a couple of days later and almost four months after Darren Blackhurst walked out Clarke was introducing the man he's charged with sorting it out: new chief merchandising officer and Sam's Club executive Charles Redfield.

The appointment has immediately raised eyebrows within the industry. Rival execs question whether his experience at Sam's Club, which is effectively a wholesaler, would translate to a UK supermarket chain.

"Clarke has said the quality of Asda's food needs to improve, so why are they appointing someone from a warehouse retailer? Like Clarke he has a direct line to Bentonville and will do what he's told," said one.

Another suggested Redfield fitted Asda's desire to wean itself of its addiction to promotions and return to its EDLP roots.

"What the appointment says is that, despite continuing high levels of promotion in recent months, Asda is definitely going back to EDLP. That's the only language Sam's Club understands."

And he questions whether a return to EDLP will work.

"I've got three queries over the appointment. First, it will take the new guy quite a long time to understand this market; second, is he a foodie? Darren and Andy [Bond] were alpha males, and not much interested in food, but it's difficult to see how this appointment can address the quality issues that Andy Clarke has admitted to. And third, can EDLP work in this market, with the nation's addiction to deals?

"My concern for the market is that Walmart is acting like a wounded animal right now, thrashing around with deep price cuts on key lines like milk, bread and other staples, while it figures out what to do."

Asda is nevertheless confident it has the right man for the task in hand. So who is he and why should he succeed where Blackhurst who now seems to be carrying the can for Asda's poor run of form since last Christmas failed?

Builder of talented teams
Redfield is a 20-year veteran of Sam's Club, working up the ranks from checkout operator through various store operation roles. After two years at the turn of the century with The Hudson Bay Company, he returned to Sam's in 2001.

Roles overseeing fresh, frozen, electronics, homewares, clothing, pharmacy and optical followed before he moved to his current role as senior vice president for food & beverage. The Walmart subsidiary operates along similar lines to Costco, serving retailers, caterers and ordinary consumers. It has a turnover of $46bn, representing 11% of Walmart's total sales. Asda's ops currently account for 8%. Sam's sales were $26bn when Redfield returned in 2001.

Clarke believes the breadth of experience stands Redfield in good stead for the Asda gig, but it is his "reputation as a builder of talented teams and his commitment to what's best in our culture that will ensure he can make a positive difference", according to Clarke.

Dismissing claims that Sam's Club is a staid wholesale operation purely and simply concerned with EDLP, Asda points to the commitment to "retailtainment" as a Redfield mantra. Its stores have different sampling activity every day as well as in-store demonstrations of various craft skills such as butchery and cake decoration.

Sam's also has a strong reputation for fresh food, Fairtrade and organic, and Redfield was personally responsible for Sam's introducing Fairtrade bananas. The retailer now accounts for 65% of all the Fairtrade bananas sold in the US.

These are clearly areas in which Redfield could make a real difference at Asda and fit perfectly with its desire to improve the food offer to help claim back some of the ground it lost to Morrisons in particular over the last year.

And while rivals may baulk at the level of attention being paid to Asda from Bentonville, Redfield's knowledge of other areas of the Walmart group is clearly seen internally as another vital part of the jigsaw. Asda has been struggling for years with finding the best way to reap the benefits of being part of the world's biggest retailer, while also operating independently.

Clarke is adamant that in order to reach its goals it needs to "take advantage of the global sourcing opportunities that being part of Walmart brings us".

"The opportunity to work even harder to leverage this relationship on behalf of our customers is significant," he says. "Success is crucial it will allow us to meet the commitments we make to our customers to keep lowering prices and also to bring them the best we can offer from around the world. I'm looking to Charles to lead these efforts and make a real and lasting strategic impact here in Asda."

Work cut out
With the buying team rudderless since Blackhurst's departure, Redfield, who is due to relocate to Leeds next month, can't start quickly enough, as far as Asda is concerned. His appointment came in the same week it announced a 0.4% fall in like-for-like sales in the second quarter, with total sales growth in the low single digits.

So Redfield has his work cut out. And he must succeed where Asda has failed in the past. Four years ago Bond was warning Asda could slip to third place in terms of market share behind a resurgent Sainsbury's, citing its inferior fresh food as a key contributory factor.

While progress was made the dramatic changes in the range since the start of the recession, which saw Asda turning into "Britain's Biggest Poundshop", in Blackhurst's phrase circumstances are not so very different now.

Sainsbury's is once again on an impressive upward curve, and while it is not about to reclaim the number two slot any time soon, especially with Asda on the verge of completing its takeover of Netto's UK stores, Redfield has a fight on his hands.

Sam’s man
Joined Walmart in 1988 as a checkout assistant. He held store operations posts before spending two years at Canadian retailer The Hudson Bay Company.

He returned to Sam's Club in 2001, heading key categories in both food and non-food. Introduced Fairtrade bananas into Sam's Club for the first time. The retailer now sells 65% of all Fairtrade bananas in the US.

Andy Clarke says he has a reputation as a builder of talented teams and his appointment signals a maturing relationship with Walmart.