“Focus on something the customer wants, and then deliver it.” ~Sam Walton
Walmart is the largest private employer in the world, only the US Department of Defense and China’s People’s Liberation Army have more people on the payroll. It stands to reason that the retail giant would use its greatest asset in its escalating battle with Amazon and Alibaba for shoppers switching from physical shopping to omni-channel modes. This strategy could be way ahead of its time as the whole retail world appears headed in the opposite direction at the moment.
Mr. Walton’s quote above is so on point for today’s shoppers. They want simplicity to get what they want, when they want, where and how they want, with as little friction as possible. Much of new retail is focused on e-commerce as that’s where people are headed. But what about the utility of physical commerce (especially service)? The pendulum has swung decidedly in automating all things; however, another Walton quote captures the current environment perfectly:
“If everybody is doing it one way, there’s a good chance you can find your niche by going exactly in the opposite direction.”
If everything is automated, human interaction can become a great competitive advantage. Ted Rubin writes about the fact that so many marketers are simply obsessed with the machines and not the shoppers. With the exception of Amazon, all the data in the world really isn’t helping most brands and retailers figure out the changing consumer.
“We will compete with technology, but we will win with people.” ~Doug McMillon
By leveraging its overarching strength, Walmart can position itself to take advantage of two leading shopper trends. One is the retail wreckage currently taking place the other is a predictable backlash to the automation of everything. The largest closure of stores in history is Walmart’s gain. All those shoppers are going to go somewhere and with a Walmart nearby, it stands to gain from Sears, Macy’s, Penney’s and countless others’ loss.
Ultimately, those shifting shoppers will migrate some portion of their spending to e-commerce and have many non-location-based options where Walmart will have to compete on a different set of criteria. This is where “winning with people” can have the greatest impact. The opposite direction from most of retail is figuring out how human and machine interaction provides the best experience possible versus an all-or-nothing game. There are times you want to talk to a person and times you don’t, and this ratio is different for everyone. Of all retail competitors, Walmart and its army of associates is best positioned to experiment with this mix and give shoppers what they want instead of just assuming automation is best. With over 95% of its 1/2 trillion in revenue still coming from its stores, it also has the world’s greatest shopper marketing lab at its disposal.
Walmart can physically test almost any form of shopping interaction, possibly preparing it for whatever shoppers decide to do in the future. Its latest innovation is a giant drive through self-service kiosk. In a few years when our self- driving cars autonomously leave our garages and head over to pick up our orders for us, this type of platform could easily load them into the trunk for the trip back home. The range of food shopping services are growing quickly from meal kits to personal shopper services, and which will prevail will be anyone’s guess. Another great example is Walmart’s test of using its associates as delivery personnel. Walmart is simply redeploying its human capital to match how its customers want to shop. The retail leader has the enviable position of being able to relentlessly test live omnichannel solutions and then either build, buy or partner when it identifies what its shoppers want, thereby leveraging its expertise with stores.
As consumers choose prevailing shopping paths from new options, human touch will become an important part of the equation and Walmart has more humans than most of its competitors combined. By being true to Sam Walton’s values of putting the customer first, Walmart may very well emerge as the ultimate future retailer.