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3 O'Clock High: The Wal-Mart Makeover


"I came for the great prices but stayed for the associates' vaguely threatening leers!"

Minyan Ben Richter "Scale" writes:

Prof. Jeffmacke, for a moment as I was reading this Washington Pest article on Wal-Mart's (WMT) high-end store in Plano I thought I may have inadvertently clicked to one of your columns on Minyanville. Wondering what you think of this "experiment". Hey, Frankenstein was an experiment too, right?

Actually, the monster was the experiment. Frankenstein ("FRAHn-ken-steen") was a misguided scientist so far removed from everyday society that he had lost all touch with the wants and desires of the unwashed, teeming, herds of normal folk, with whom he shared a relationship of mutual contempt. Had the winds of fate blown differently by only a whisper, Frankenstein may have been beloved as an eccentric genius rather than a dangerous eccentric with little to no control over the beast he unleashed on the world.

Which brings us to Wal-Mart management, currently down from Mount Bentonville and hobnobbing with the hoipolloi at the company's second annual Media Day! In addition to showcasing their high-end efforts ("See? We know how to run a clean store; we just choose not to do it chain-wide"), WalMart has revealed that it will be de-emphasizing the 'Smiley' in future promotional efforts.

In today's Wall Street Journal, John Fleming, a 19-year Target (TGT) vet and WalMart's chief marketing officer, says that the Smiley canning reflects WalMart's desire to focus away from competing on price and more towards a friendly customer experience. "We are not just about price, but the broad value proposition for all customers" says Mr. Fleming.

"The bastards won't have Smiley to kick around anymore" - Smiley

So... you were wondering what I think of Wal-Mart's efforts to stop focusing on price and focus instead on creating a soup-to-nuts Value Proposition for customers? In no particular order, I think:

  • I think the marketing guy from Target is absolutely right in terms of the message Wal-Mart needs to convey to both existing and potential customers. It sounds a lot like about a dozen columns I've written about WalMart in the last 6 months so, hey, who would I be to criticize it? At least as a concept...
  • ... in practice, the Chief Marketing Officer is exactly the wrong guy to be leading the charge. Wal-Mart's crumbling store base is emphatically not a marketing problem. It's an operational problem and the CEO is the person who should be talking to the WSJ at this point. Nothing against John Fleming (except my jealousy that he gets to go down in history as the guy who fired Smiley). Mr. Fleming should talk about the Value Proposition endlessly, once the program is underway.
  • But right now, Wal-Mart stores remain the fetid, yellow-stained armpit of the retail world. Unless they are actively plowing the corpses of untold millions of Smileys into parking lot potholes to serve as fill, Wal-Mart may be putting the Marketing cart in front of the Maintenance horse.
  • The guy who needs to be talking about this right now is CEO Lee Scott. (Don't be coy about this unauthorized (and uncompensated) Macke-Idea-Borrowin', Lee. Use my speech verbatim for your Media Day keynote! If you call me quick I'll even do a rewrite (to be honest, I sort of just aped Peggy Noonan the first time around). Just remember me when all those stock options get above-water!)
  • WalMart stocking Brokeback Mountain is like MTV resisting protests and playing 2 Live Crew's hideous "Me So Horny", a few years ago. I mean, I'm all for the cause of Free Speech and against censorship in any form, let alone based on a mythica vision of puritanical and easily offended America, but, seriously, couldn't we find anything better with which we could make the same point?

A Brokeback/ Wal-Mart connection does make perfect sense in one respect. People buying Brokeback expecting a sort of Butch and Sundance with less shooting (but willing to settle for anything other than a tedious artfilm with grunts passing as dialogue) are going to end up with the same feeling of hollow disappointment as people going to Wal-Mart hoping to see some of these upkeep improvements they've been reading about lately.

In retail as in life, it's best to save the talking until you can back it up.

No positions in stocks mentioned.

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