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The Wal-Mart Paradox

The Wal-Mart Paradox

If there's any retailer that knows how uncomfortable the murky middle can be, it's Wal-Mart, which over the past 30 years has plowed scores of its smaller competitors there, frequently contributing to their ultimate demise. But after a year of economic hardship for Wal-Mart shoppers and changes in consumer behaviors learned during the recession it's not without some irony to find the world's largest

If there's any retailer that knows how uncomfortable the murky middle can be, it's Wal-Mart, which over the past 30 years has plowed scores of its smaller competitors there, frequently contributing to their ultimate demise.

But after a year of economic hardship for Wal-Mart shoppers — and changes in consumer behaviors learned during the recession — it's not without some irony to find the world's largest retailer in some danger of slipping into the middle itself these days. Paradoxically, this vulnerability is at least partly a by-product of Wal-Mart's own attempt at nuanced strategic transformation, the ongoing merchandising and branding program known as Project Impact.

While Wal-Mart Stores officials express strong confidence in Project Impact, particularly for the long term — citing multiple financial and retail successes that they insist are only just beginning — disappointing sales and store traffic results in recent months have prompted the chain to tweak some tactics and reverse course on others. It has also sparked some debate among industry observers as to exactly what is ailing the Bentonville, Ark., chain and the extent to which its issues can be solved. They cite stronger competition — retailers that not only better challenge the giant on price, but also those running store formats that capitalize on Wal-Mart's shortcomings. Changes in consumer behavior — not only the effects of high unemployment, but the recession-borne emphasis on value gaining wider applications as the economy improves — are also a factor, they say.

“Wal-Mart is still a hugely, incredibly successful company,” Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners, New Canaan, Conn., told SN in an interview. “But I think it's missed half a beat.”

Officially launched late in 2008, and rolled out throughout last year, Project Impact brought new methods of marketing and merchandising items at Wal-Mart, showcased in a softer, redesigned store and tied together with a brand message that shifted emphasis from price to value at Wal-Mart stores. The program was designed to capture a larger and more economically diverse shopper base — particularly the wealthier shoppers who'd begun to frequent Wal-Mart as a means to save money when economic conditions first became threatening.

Remerchandising at Wal-Mart took the form of an SKU rationalization program designed to weed out brands and sizes in categories considered to be slow growing or without the potential for Wal-Mart to dominate, and devote their space toward those categories with strong growth potential. Dubbed “Win, Play, Show,” the remerchandising focused Wal-Mart's pricing and promotional power on key growth categories, many of which were also vital to its supermarket competitors.

It hasn't worked quite as planned, company officials confessed to analysts in a meeting earlier this month. Certain category cuts went too deep, necessitating the company to reintroduce some 400 grocery products, while in other cases, Wal-Mart wasn't aggressive enough in establishing its high-growth “Win” products, said John Fleming, chief merchandising officer.

By making choices for Win, Play and Show designations across the entire U.S. store base, Wal-Mart mistakenly implied “that all customers are the same,” added Eduardo Castro-Wright, corporate vice chairman and president of Walmart U.S. He said the chain is currently revamping the process using more demographic precision, making decisions for stores in various clusters.

A recent Nielsen Co. study suggested that retailers that hacked brands which resonated with particular shoppers stood to lose more than sales of the particular product, but often lose entire baskets and store trips as well. “If I have to go to Lunds in Minneapolis because my favorite coffee is no longer at Wal-Mart, then I'm going to be buying a lot more at Lunds now, aren't I?” said David Rogers, president of DSR Marketing, Deerfield, Ill. “The fact that Wal-Mart's now putting 300 or 400 items back onto the shelves indicates their judgment was poor about what to take out. There's no way around that.”

Burt P. Flickinger III, managing partner of Strategic Resource Group, New York, added that many of Wal-Mart's competitors have taken advantage of the situation by featuring brands and sizes that were cut by Wal-Mart.

Customers Under Stress

Castro-Wright said the SKU cuts were only one factor contributing to sales falling below company expectations recently. He also cited a shopper base under particular economic stress, especially in areas with high unemployment. Of Wal-Mart's U.S. stores, he said the 25% in areas with lowest unemployment are outperforming those elsewhere by 2.5%. “Unemployment is a major part of the shortfall in sales,” he said.

The company saw benefits from many of those especially hard-hit markets leading up to the recession, Flickinger noted. “Wal-Mart hurt itself to some extent by oversaturating its key Sun Belt states from Arizona to the Southeast,” he told SN. “Those areas were once growing in population and income but they're seeing tough economic times right now, and as a result Wal-Mart is seeing tough economic times.”

Wal-Mart has also been feeling the effects of hotter competition over the last year, as retailers adjusted pricing to compete in the recession. Wal-Mart in the meantime slowed its pace of temporary price reductions, known as price rollbacks, while it introduced its new merchandising programs in 2009, Castro-Wright said. Wal-Mart has responded this year with a “very robust” new rollback program aimed at addressing pricing gaps and, said Castro-Wright, “ensuring that we remain the undisputed price leader in the marketplace.”

The rollbacks are being supported with more prominent advertising in circulars and in stores beginning this spring, observers noted.

While some analysts predicted the return of rollbacks would accompany “price wars” between supermarkets and Wal-Mart, others said such battles on price with Wal-Mart are more likely to erupt at the level of the growing hard-discount grocers like Aldi and small discounters such as Dollar General. The growth of these formats is showing consumers that Wal-Mart can be matched and beaten on prices, sources said.

“Wal-Mart is still a low-price leader but it's not the low-price leader,” said Flickinger, noting his firm's studies showing Aldi beating Wal-Mart on items such as canned vegetables and milk.

“As good a concept as Project Impact is, Wal-Mart is having a tougher time shifting sales than it used to, because so many of its competitors have gone out of business, and the surviving stores — particularly the hard discounters, price-impact players and wholesale clubs, have gotten very, very tough on price,” he added.

Wal-Mart's sales and traffic woes earlier this year indicated “it was losing the customer it had gained during the recession by allowing the price gap with supermarkets to narrow,” Deborah Weinswig, an analyst at Citi Investment Research, New York, said in a note to clients. “We believe shoppers no longer consider the price savings offered by Wal-Mart to outweigh the experience and convenience of shopping the supermarkets. Wal-Mart realizes it must act now to keep the customer.”

Others said they feel Wal-Mart's more aggressive rollbacks are serving mainly to spark store traffic. “They have a good price image and probably don't need to take their prices down,” Andrew Wolf, an analyst at BB&T Capital Markets, Richmond, Va., told SN. “What they're doing is trying to get customers in the door. They're promoting.”

Promotional Profile

David Dillon, Kroger's chief executive officer, in a conference call this month said that Wal-Mart's new rollback program has transformed its competitive profile, saying the company more closely resembles a high-low supermarket competitor using hot prices to draw traffic.

“Wal-Mart is a lot more consistent with a traditional grocery-supermarket operation than it is consistent with what Wal-Mart used to do,” Dillon said. “It uses a lot more feature items. Sometimes those features are on for more than a week, but it's [still] feature items, and when you operate that way there may be items that come down in price and get a lot of publicity, but there are others that go up in price that don't get that much publicity. We see the behavior as a lot of marketing noise.”

Making a stronger emphasis to promote price seemingly comes into conflict with some of the changes Wal-Mart introduced as part of Project Impact. Emphasizing “fast, clean and friendly” stores, the retailer used more subtle signs, lower shelf heights, improved lighting and cleared merchandised pallets from the “Action Alley” aisle running alongside its grocery aisles in U.S. Supercenters.

Wal-Mart's “Clean Action Alley” initiative has done wonders for store navigation and won acclaim from shoppers, retail observers and Wal-Mart itself: Mike Duke, president and CEO, this month said store conditions at Wal-Mart were the best in the company's history. However, Fleming acknowledged the changes to Action Alley came at the cost of a sense of “promotional intensity” inside the stores. Castro-Wright said Wal-Mart would consider reintroducing some features from Action Alley into other areas of the store — but like its merchandising initiative, do so only in certain stores.

“Project Impact is not about Action Alley,” Castro-Wright told analysts. “It is a holistic approach to how we go to market, and that is not going to change.”

Dave Marcotte of Kantar Retail, Cambridge, Mass., said he senses these changes as a harder approach from Wal-Mart to counter some of the unintended effects of Project Impact.

“The rollbacks to me indicate that they're saying, ‘We've tried the soft approach, now we're going to go hard. We're going to be the biggest, toughest guys on the block in pricing,’” Marcotte said. “That's somewhat in conflict with Project Impact. The rollbacks are great but I don't know if it will work any better. They seem to be caught in a box of their own design.”

Johnson of Customer Growth Partners said he sees Wal-Mart's troubles not as a result of its changes but rather as a result of changes in shopper behavior. He believes the recession has served to increase consumers' propensity to make convenience and mission-specific shopping trips while reducing their appetite for stocking up. The latter is a Wal-Mart strength; other retailers in the meantime have gone after the former occasions, knowing they tend to be weak spots for Wal-Mart.

“Wal-Mart does a lot of things right but at the margins it's losing a fraction of these non-stock-up trips, which are being better served by other retailers,” Johnson said. “You have convenience trips well-served by Walgreens and CVS, which have sharply ramped up food offerings and morphed into convenience stores without fuel pumps. At the same time, you have retailers who are in more direct competition with Wal-Mart really stepping up their game in a challenging and margin-pressure environment. Kroger has stepped up its game, as have the strong regionals out there — H-E-B, Publix and Meijer.”

Small Competition

If there's a trait all of Wal-Mart's competitors share, it's that their stores are smaller — and as a result tend to be easier to shop — than Wal-Mart. Some analysts have argued that consumers during the recession learned bargain-hunting behaviors they will now apply to non-price facets of their shopping experience. This again bodes well for stores that can demonstrate their value lies in a more convenient experience than Wal-Mart. Some, like Aldi, are doing so in combination with everyday low prices — and pose a real threat. “Aldi drives [Wal-Mart] crazy,” Marcotte said. “I don't think they know how to compete with it.”

Several sources said they feel Wal-Mart would be ultimately well-served to bolster its U.S. Supercenter business with a smaller concept store (see related story here). “Long term, we believe Wal-Mart needs to experiment with smaller formats,” Johnson said. “They need to serve the convenience and mission-specific shopping trip better.”

The continued proliferation of dollar stores and hard discounters in the meantime are also weighing on Wal-Mart, Rogers said. “Each dollar store does only $1.2 million [in sales] a year, but when you've got 25,000 of them and they're opening 5,000 a year, it starts to hurt,” he contended. “They all take a little bit from you, and it starts to add up.”

Castro-Wright in remarks at Wal-Mart's analyst conference suggested it was alternative formats — and not mainstream supermarkets — absorbing sales “leakage” from Wal-Mart, noting that Wal-Mart's comparable grocery sales have matched or outpaced comps in the larger grocery channel.

Wal-Mart's message to consumers has also shifted some recently. In addition to making a stronger effort to communicate price rollbacks, the retailer is now airing television commercials featuring its truck drivers and warehouse workers demonstrating how Wal-Mart's internal productivity efforts contribute to lower prices in store. Officials refer to this as “price transparency” and consider it an advantage for Wal-Mart as consumers become more sophisticated about shopping.

The productivity cycle — what officials called a “virtuous circle” that invests cost savings into lower prices, creating greater sales and more opportunity for leverage — remains at the heart of Wal-Mart's strategy.

“The business model at Wal-Mart is alive and well and stronger than ever,” Duke said at the investor conference. “And even as the world changes, and customers are finding new ways to shop, the Wal-Mart business model is going to work even better.”