The world's largest retailer, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., has agreed to resume sharing consumer data with a major market research firm, a move that could help other retailers, as well as manufacturers, better understand how Americans shop and could influence what appears on store shelves.
Most U.S. food, drug, discount and convenience chains provide Nielsen Holdings N.V. with sales data, but Wal-Mart is considered the single most important bellwether of consumer spending because it accounts for nearly 10 percent of all nonautomotive retail dollars spent in the U.S.
About 100 million shoppers visit Wal-Mart stores in the U.S. each week. The company generated net revenue of $419 billion worldwide in its latest fiscal year.
The agreement it announced Thursday with Nielsen ends a decade-long break in their relationship.
Consumer product makers and retailers use Nielsen data in making all kinds of decisions, from figuring out what flavor cereal to carry to how to market and price a product. Economists, Wall Street analysts and others also use the data.
Under the agreement, Nielsen will get data from both Walmart and Sam's Club stores and will provide Wal-Mart with training and information on consumer trends, the companies said in a joint press release.
"Nielsen is confident that both retailers and consumer goods manufacturers will benefit significantly from greater accuracy of information on what consumers buy," John Lewis, president and CEO of Nielsen's North America Consumer division, said in the statement.
Over the next several months, according to the statement, Nielsen plans to incorporate Wal-Mart information into all its data bases and its forecasts on overall consumer behavior. Jennifer Frighetto, a Nielsen spokeswoman, said she's not sure how far back the historical data will go.
Nielsen officials said that when the market research giant wasn't receiving information directly from Wal-Mart, it used interviews with Wal-Mart shoppers to decipher spending patterns. But regaining access to what's happening at the cash register provides deeper and more accurate insight.
Brian Sozzi, a Wall Street Strategies retail analyst, welcomed the news that better data will be available on the uneven consumer spending recovery. The data will help stores understand shoppers' reactions to an escalating wave of price increases on a variety of products, he said.
The agreement comes as Wal-Mart has faced eight straight quarters of declines in a key revenue measure _ sales at stores open at least a year _ at its U.S. namesake stores. Analysts have said the declines resulted in part from mistakes it made in pricing and merchandising.
Sales also have faltered because the main customers of Walmart stores are continuing to limit their spending and shift to online rivals or dollar stores, which offer convenience and good bargains.
In February, Wal-Mart formed a new global consumer insights team led by Cindy Davis, who was executive vice president of membership and marketing at the company's Sam's Club warehouse chain, where sales have been stronger the past five quarters.
"We plan to share our point-of-sale information and to help us identify category growth opportunities sooner and collaborate with our manufacturer partners to develop more impactful ...programs going forward," Davis said in a statement.
Tara Raddohl, a Wal-Mart spokeswoman, said the retailer stopped sharing sales data and started relying on its own database about a decade ago to ensure "no outside parties could view Wal-Mart's U.S. performance without its consent."