Retailers will shun senior leadership or organizational changes within the critically important holiday sales period to avoid distraction or disruption to all-important operational execution.  That apparently may not be the case for global retailer Wal-Mart’s U.S. operations.

The Wall Street Journal reports (paid subscription) that the global retailer’s chief merchandising officer for U.S. operations, Duncan Mac Naughton will be leaving amidst an apparent shake-up involving U.S. retail merchandising.  According to the report, Greg Foran, chief executive of Wal-Mart U.S., informed employees in a memo that Mac Naughton decided to leave the company “to pursue new opportunities,” effective immediately. The publication cites unnamed internal sources as indicating that Mac Naughton’s departure was prompted by being passed over for the U.S. CEO role this past summer.

The company also announced it will replace its U.S. head of grocery operations, Jack Sinclair. Steve Bratspies, who leads the general merchandise division, will take over as executive vice president of food merchandising. Mr. Sinclair will be taking another role within Wal-Mart to be announced at a later date.

According to the WSJ, Wal-Mart won’t name a new U.S. chief merchant at this time and executives in charge of food, general merchandise, apparel and several other business lines will report to U.S. CEO Duncan directly as he examines merchandising more closely.

This news obviously comes just prior to the celebration of the Thanksgiving holiday and kickoff of the Black Friday retail sales holiday and could be a sign of other operational changes within U.S. retail operations in the weeks to come. In its reporting, the WSJ makes reference to Wal-Mart’s recent announcement to spread out Black Friday holiday promotions and in-store availability of fresh grocery and other items as potential issues that might have led-up to these leadership changes. A Wal-Mart spokesperson indicated to the WSJ that any potential organization disruption was minimal since the bulk of holiday related merchandising plans were already in-place and that is was now up to operations to execute the holiday focused merchandising plan in the coming weeks.

From our Supply Chain Matters lens, recent holiday surge periods have featured very dynamic changes in merchandising plans as retailers maneuvered to capture consumer wallet interest with the most attractive and well-timed promotions. With the current looming uncertainty for what inbound inventories will remain hung-up in west coast ports or U.S. transportation networks, dynamic merchandising may well be a more prominent tactical response in the coming weeks.

This development is significant, one that will have further implications.

Bob Ferrari