After a tempestuous fourth quarter, Walmart’s first-quarter results out last week were very much the lull after the storm.
The figures themselves were largely uninspiring and there was a relatively sedate news flow. But this calm belies significant behind the scenes activity that may have a significant bearing on strategic direction for years to come. We’ve flagged up four initiatives that have the potential to scale up to greater significance in the future.
Big data The indication is that Walmart is on an offensive to capture and mine customer data on a number of fronts. Initiatives such as the Savings Catcher (a price-matching service being tested in seven markets) and an opportunity for customers to opt for e-receipts may be pitched in altruistic terms, but their underlying aim is to capture customer data. Expect more to follow (also at its warehouse club Sam’s Club).
‘Market ecosystem’ strategy Walmart US is pushing ahead in consolidating some backroom and administrative functions on a market-by-market basis. Centralised hiring and training will free up store management time that can then be redirected to store operations and customer service - critical for Walmart. Staff training will be uniform and more in-depth. This will enable more flexible staffing and work arrangements for part-time associates seeking extra hours or to ‘fill in’ at other Walmart stores as needed.
Testing of a Drive concept The Drive format, a form of click-and-collect where shoppers collect online orders at a specified pick-up point, is gaining traction across Europe. Walmart US has observed the concept at Asda and rival Ahold’s online operation Peapod in the US. Now Walmart is cautiously dipping a toe in domestic waters. The company has submitted a proposal to local officials in Bentonville, Arkansas, where its headquarters are based, to build its first standalone grocery pick-up depot.
Launch of Walmart to Go c-store In a low-key launch, the first outlet began trading close to Bentonville in March. At just 2,500 sq ft, it is only around a quarter of the size of the smallest Walmart Express outlets. Key features include a gas station, a focus on convenience staples including packaged foods. The indication is that this is closer to a c-store format in the truest sense. As such, it could ultimately prove a conduit through which to penetrate urban areas.
Do not necessarily expect immediate, nationwide roll-out of any of these initiatives. Most (especially Walmart to Go) are likely to have long incubation periods. But then so too did Neighborhood Market and, more tellingly, Supercenters before that. As the saying goes, mighty oaks from little acorns do grow.