Digital · e-commerce

Walmart’s E-commerce Strategy: Pure Genius Or Venture Capitalist Bailout Fund?

Some believe Walmart should be pilloried for its laggard status in e-commerce. Many of these same folks are now cheering the company’s decision to put all e-commerce under internet wunderkind Mark Lore, as well as its new aggressive strategy to acquire online brands (Jet, ModCloth, ShoeBuy, MooseJaw and–apparently any minute–Bonobos). At last, they say, the company is serious about taking on Amazon.

The contrarian view is that Walmart was right to go slow in online shopping because of how hard it is to make money, and that encouraging too much volume to shift from physical to digital channels would de-leverage brick & mortar store economics unnecessarily. Moreover, spending billions to acquire brands that seem to have little prospect of ever being cash positive may appease Wall Street, but it is throwing good money after bad. More than a few folks have also intimated that Walmart is mostly bidding against itself in these deals as the “smart money” now sees how crazy many so-called digitally-native brand valuations have become.

I tend to side with the latter camp. And, full disclosure, I’ve never understood how Jet.com could ever make any real money. I’ve also been on record for some time in my view that much of e-commerce is profit proof and that most digitally-native brands will never turn profitable. Of course, the jury is still out on most of this, but the collapse of the flash-sales market and recent big write-downs of some high-fliers should give investors pause and encourage them to see past the hype and to dig deeper.

Either way, there are a few important things to consider as Walmart’s strategy unfolds:

  • Shopping behavior is morphing dramatically. While e-commerce remains small to the total, it is growing much faster than physical store shopping. More importantly, most shopping trips start online. Any retailer that fails to have a strong digital presence and does not offer a well integrated shopping experience will be at a distinct competitive disadvantage. Walmart, like every other retailer, needs to respond to this trend aggressively even if the marginal economics aren’t always so favorable.
  • A digital-first mindset is critical. Here is where most “traditional’ brands get stuck. When a culture is rooted in the old way of doing business and holds on to product-centric thinking and siloed organizational structures, much needed innovation is thwarted and vast numbers of opportunities are missed. Arguably, the greatest value from Walmart’s new acquisition strategy is that they are injecting a new mindset into the organization and jump-starting a cultural transformation that can pay vast dividends.
  • Demographics are destiny. The core Walmart model is rapidly maturing. Walmart has never done well with more affluent consumers and they are likely not doing particularly well with acquiring increasingly important Millennial customers. One way or another, to sustain growth Walmart needs to figure this out and scale it quickly.
  • Organic growth is hard and time is not our friend. Most large companies struggle to move the needle on growth in any material way through their own internal efforts. If anything, the pace of change is accelerating. Clearly, a smart acquisition strategy is one way to address both of these challenges.
  • E-commerce valuations are mostly irrational. I have consulted to multiple investment firms and conducted due diligence on quite a few e-commerce deals–including one of the brands that Walmart acquired. In every case the prices that were being discussed at the time either proved to be ridiculously high (as evidenced by subsequent write-downs) or the company could not present a compelling roadmap to profitability. Clearly there are, and will continue to be, exceptions. But irrationality does not last forever. Bubbles eventually burst.

As skeptical as I am, Walmart needs to do something big and bold. Minimally, their culture will get shaken up, likely in a very good way. Managing a portfolio of innovative brands should give them plenty of useful learning. And, in the scheme of things, a poor ROI on a few billions dollars will hardly bring them to their knees.

Yet mostly I am struck by the words of a venture capitalist who has been struggling mightily with how he was going to salvage a multi-million dollar investment in a “disruptive” online brand that has garnered gobs of good PR but is burning through cash with no end in sight.

As he reflected on Walmart’s most recently announced acquisition he told me this: “Now I wake up every day and thank God for companies like Walmart.”

A version of this story recently appeared at Forbes, where I am a retail contributor. You can check out more of my posts and follow me here.  

3 thoughts on “Walmart’s E-commerce Strategy: Pure Genius Or Venture Capitalist Bailout Fund?

  1. Steve – I am in your camp, but with a few changes to the campfire. Walmart – at least in Scottsdale AZ – is doing very well with the upper income crowds and mills. The parking lot – on some days – has more Audis and Mercs and >$50K cars than others and the shoppers who drive those cars are all over the stores – looking for good prices and shopping food and hardgoods. Not much in apparel. I know because I wander the store to learn more about the shopper…and but stuff from my wife’s list (which I never fill properly).
    Maybe we are unique – but the new pick up center is right near the door and the pretzel joint is gone (junk food).
    Walmart is a new brand and the younger team running the it – from end to end – will change a lot – except the name.

    Tom

  2. Hi Steve,
    Am wondering about retailers like Trader Joe’s who have very little online presence and no apps or ability to purchase online. Yet, they’re doing really well and are beating the competition. Rhetorical question really- I’ve my own theory that they know their customers really well and have targeted markets where they know they’ll be successful through analytics and market research.
    Would love your thoughts on this subject.

    1. Of course the main thing is they have a well differentiated value proposition, but like all grocers the penetration of online is very low given the high cost and complications around delivery and the nature of the products being bought.

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