Lupin 2023

Merchant of the Year honors for Walmart’s Julie Barber

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The retailer is intent on having the latest innovations in O-T-C health care.

BENTONVILLE, Ark. — For Walmart’s Julie Barber, transitioning from food merchandising to a top position in the company’s health and wellness merchandising business, was “a perfect next step.”

Julie Barber

In the earlier role, she explains, she was already focused on health, because what people eat is so central to their well-being.

“We were really leaning in on healthier snacks and building them out as affordable choices,” says Barber, who has been Walmart’s senior vice president of health and wellness merchandising since the summer of 2020. “Often when we think about healthy foods, they can be more expensive. But at Walmart, the goal is to ensure that we have those foods at an affordable price. And so then moving over to health and wellness was a natural progression.”

That progression has worked out well, with Walmart becoming an invaluable source of personal protective equipment (PPE) and over-the-counter products at a time when the pandemic prevented countless people from getting to doctors’ offices. For her integral part in Walmart’s health care role amid COVID-19 and her efforts to continue to advance the company’s wellness offerings, Barber has been named Chain Drug Review’s Merchant of the Year for 2021.

Affordability, of course, is just as important to people buying O-T-Cs as to those buying groceries. Walmart’s promise to help people reduce expenses and improve their lives plays a central role in its health and wellness offerings, says Barber. “Our O-T-C category is probably one of the best examples of our mission to save people money so that they can live better. Our goal at Walmart has been to provide increased accessibility to a wide assortment of affordable, high-quality health and wellness products, and that started before COVID, and it remains so today.”

The retailer is intent on having the latest innovations in O-T-C health care, she says. “We want them to be at the value and quality level they expect from Walmart, both in-store and online. So essentially, we want our customers to be able to find what they want, when they want it, how they want it. They can shop in our store, online, they can get it immediately, they can get it in two hours, they can have it delivered in a week. We want them to be able to find that with other Walmart products, and in the health and wellness O-T-C space, we feel no differently.”

Heightened consciousness of self-care during the COVID outbreak resulted in consumers showing increasing interest in prevention, immunity and general well-being, she notes. “Throughout the pandemic, customers stocked up on pain relievers and O-T-Cs, but we also saw them take a much more proactive approach to their health and well-being. Vitamins and supplements saw huge increases and, in fact, our own Spring Valley line of vitamins became a billion-dollar brand as customers added vitamins to their regimen while also looking for good value.”

Post pandemic, customers will remain more aware and involved in their personal health, she says. Supplementation is here to stay, with individuals taking “a host of things” to maintain their health. “They might not have been taking vitamins or supplements before, but they are now, and they’ve continued to add to them.

To help consumers navigate large and complex O-T-C categories, Walmart has been “on a journey to ensure the flow of the shelf makes sense to how customers shop and interact with the product, and make the shopping experience quicker and easier.” This includes in-aisle signage for easier navigation that reflects the way the customer intuitively shops different categories.

It also has invested in new fixtures to enhance the in-store presentation. Shelf strips now may say cognitive vitamins, or daily vitamins, or children’s vitamins, and in cold/cough/flu one strip may highlight cold medications, and another may point out immunity products. Similar work has been done to simplify the shopping experience on by bringing together multiple products for allergies and cough/cold/flu. “So if you go on the site, whether that’s because you want to buy or you want to research beforehand, it’s all in one place,” says Barber.

In stores, pharmacists play an integral role in helping customers identify the right products, she notes. “Often our pharmacists are the first person that a customer goes to if they need to find a product. And sometimes they have questions like, ‘Hey, should I be taking this? Does this help with allergies or does this help with cold/cough/flu,’ and maybe they’re not even sure if this is an allergy they have or cold/cough/flu symptoms. So the pharmacist is guiding customers to where the product might be, as well as helping them understand the best product for them to take.”

On the private brand front, Walmart’s Equate brand is very strong in equity, trust, affordability and accessibility, says Barber. “It is the No. 1 brand in my space. The customer need for these brand attributes is even higher coming through COVID. We’ll continue to invest in providing quality products that meet these needs under the Equate brand. So Equate will continue to be very, very important at Walmart, as well as Spring Valley. That’s a very highly trusted brand, which often people don’t even realize is a Walmart brand. But it’s a very large vitamin brand in the U.S. and certainly the biggest vitamin brand at Walmart.”

There’s no ideal mix between national and private brands, she adds. Each category assortment is designed to fulfill what the Walmart customer needs, including affordability and accessibility, which is what Equate and Spring Valley are designed to deliver. Essentially the retailer’s strategy is to provide an Equate product where it knows customers require a more affordable alternative. “When we’re able to provide a quality and value solution on the item, we will commercialize it into the assortment. So we’re always watching. And this drives our assortment decision making. When we see a gap based on assortment and customer data, we’ll look to meet that customer need in the Equate brand.”

She says the future will present more opportunities to emphasize personal nutrition and wellness with national brands as well as private label products. “We’ve already brought several brands, many of which were previously only available directly from the supplier, into our stores and on We’re creating greater access to health and wellness brands, including GNC, Roman for Men and Goli.”

While COVID has been and continues to be a very large disruptor, the Walmart team has worked hard to make sure the country has access to the essential items and services they need. COVID initially altered shopping patterns, with customers coming to stores at less crowded times, during the day on weekdays, and stocking up more while making fewer trips. Walmart saw tremendous growth in curbside pickup and online sales, as customers were looking for convenient solutions, and different ways to shop with which they were most comfortable.

Then as COVID incidents waned, customers somewhat returned to previous shopping patterns. At the same time, Walmart’s digital channels have remained popular, and some habits have changed, notes Barber. “So where customers were solely focused on buying in-store, now we see them using this sort of hybrid model of, “I like to go in-store for certain things, but there are a lot of things that are easier for me to get online or through our online grocery pickup and delivery business.”

When people started sheltering in place, social distancing and working remotely, Barber recalls that customers were panicked about getting needed products. “Walmart and my team really stepped up to have a lot of PPE and health medicines. The first thing that customers were looking for were cough-cold and flu medicines, vitamins, supplements — anything that could make them feel healthier. And so we started there and helped ensure we had the products that people needed.

“We worked so hard to figure out how to get the PPE that people needed. We spent countless hours thinking through that. And we were one of the first retailers to have masks in our stores, sufficient numbers of gloves and isopopryl alcohol — all of the things that consumers were looking for during the pandemic.” As customers have returned to work, there has been growth in some different segments. Customers looking to lose weight, for example, have turned to workout supplements.

Walmart has sought to provide unfettered access to testing, whether for associates or customers, she points out. Its clinical and pharmacy teams, in collaboration with the Department of Health and Human Services, set up a lot of testing sites across the nation in Walmart parking lots. “And now we’ve moved more into a space where we have strong partnerships with many companies where we have those over-the-counter rapid tests that are available in our stores and online, and we’ve seen a pretty high surge in demand for them as well. So testing continues to be really important for our customers and associates, and we’ll continue to make sure we have options for that.” In short, says Barber, her work over the past year and a half has been life-changing. It called for a focus on customers’ health and wellness at a time like no other and stepping up for them amid a tremendous degree of uncertainty. “They could count on meeting their needs at Walmart early on,” she says, including for COVID testing and eventually, vaccinations. “We were the first to market on so many of those things.”

Digital commerce at Walmart has been strong, she comments, saying, “We’re doing a lot of fun things in the O-T-C space. People don’t often think of the excitement that can be had from social commerce. We had one particular program that we had done on TikTok around sleep that had many, many views. So I think we’re really coming into some fun times with how we can use social commerce, and we’ll continue to push in that way. You’ll see that particularly in our beauty space, and we’re working on it more and more with O-T-Cs. Social commerce is very strong at Walmart in general, and we think there is great opportunity here in the health care space.

“While the appeal of seeing, touching and feeling products endures, there are more routine shopping trips that make online ordering more convenient for customers, I’ll go ahead and have that shipped to my store or delivered to my store same-day.”

Generally speaking, she says, “there is a digital component that may be the lead solution to ensuring customer success. Whether in the form of education or an actual solution, we know digital will continue to play a larger part on this customer journey.”

The future can also bring opportunities to link nonprescription offerings to the clinical services of Walmart Health, and help provide holistic solutions and a one-stop health and wellness destination for customers. We’re working closely to understand what’s best for our customers and ensure there are synergies in our offerings, both behind and in front of the pharmacy counter, and online in areas like telehealth.”

Conditions like diabetes, heart health and post-vaccination care can call for O-T-C support, Barber notes. “We really believe at Walmart we’re a destination for health and wellness across all of those areas, and we’re working hard to continue to expand our offerings and increase our accessibility with high-quality, affordable care.”

The relationship of her team with both the pharmacy and health clinic teams is “very strong,” she points out. “We meet often with them and think through what the synergies are and how we’re working together. Because essentially, it isn’t about your organization, it’s about what the customer wants. And we as a total organization want to offer that both behind the counter and with O-T-C care.”

Regardless of who she’s working with or what she’s working on, Barber is passionate about making customers’ lives easier. “There’s something special about knowing that the time the team and I are putting into deciding what items to offer — and where to put them on the shelf — is making somebody’s life better. I think that’s the best part of the job.”


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