Wal-Mart’s John Andrews’ Expanding Retail Media Universe

It’s way too early for anyone to claim omniscience in the world of emerging media and particularly its implications for retail.  What better way, then, to wrap up the Bentonville Chamber’s (www.bbvchamber.com) Wal-Mart executive presentation series than to host Wal-Mart’s Senior Marketing Manager of Emerging Media, John Andrews . . . He brought the same upbeat, self-effacing candor to this topic as he did last November when PRISM (Pioneering Research for an In-Store Metric) was all the rage and when clean aisle policies were keeping everyone awake at night.  (Wal-Mart’s Smart Network was probably an incubating embryo back then.)  Good for Wal-Mart for getting the gravity of the emerging media challenge by making it Mr. Andrews’ full time pursuit, rather that one of those “We’re taking this onto your DAY job” things.  Let Wal-Mart’s competitors continue to call out “Prove it!” and “Where’s the ROI?” . . . Wal-Mart’s jumpin’ in to this complex world of connections head (and heart) first.  Isn’t it nice to know that not everything in retail is shrinking!

 

It’s not easy addressing Wal-Mart’s take on the convergence of internet, mobile platforms and in-store communication in less than an hour . . . unless you refuse to bore the audience with eye chart slides, techno-babble and geek-speak.  (Thanks for keeping it real, Mr. Andrews!)

 

Throughout the presentation, the phrase “Do it first and fix it later” kept ringing in my ears . . .  I’m not quoting John Andrews but, rather, Natalie Massenet, the founder and chairman of Net-a-Porter.com.  I heard her speak a couple of weeks ago at a ceo summit put on by Women’s Wear Daily and I realized that Wal-Mart has some very important things in common with the uber high-end apparel etailer:  They both believe  that waiting for perfection means sacrificing first-mover advantage . . . actually these days, it means sacrificing relevance . . . much too high a price.  She too took on what would seem to be an ill-advised venture (selling designer apparel . . . at full price . . . online!) and with seemingly horrible timing (Dot com burst).  Mr. Andrews is overseeing Wal-Mart’s biggest explosion of emerging media, something that many of its competitors haven’t even winked at, right smack in the middle of a recession.  Breaking the hunker-down mold, Mr. Andrew’s talk took on a tone of discovery, listening and of embracing imperfection and iterative refinement processes.  Other recent Wal-Mart executive presentations have had this same vibe . . . very nimble and course-correcting.  Leaves me wondering why others with far less at stake continue down the control and command path!

 

The first slide reminded us  that Sam wasn’t stodgy (“We didn’t have to change who we were . . . our purpose aligned with Sam Walton’s vision”) and that all initiatives are in complete alignment with Wal-Mart’s stickier-by-the-day mantra of “Save money, live better.”  Make no mistake, complex technology is in no way at odds with straightforward messaging to the consumer and returning to that one message has allowed Wal-Mart to maintain its focus while taking on a dizzying array of media plays.

 

In lock step with a recent presentation given here by Wal-Mart’s three tenors, Bill Simon, Stephen Quinn and John Fleming (see previous posts),  Mr. Andrews confirmed that, until further notice, all of Wal-Mart’s emerging media efforts are laser-focused on “mom” (also the acronym for Merchandising, Operations and Marketing in case you needed another association).  In the previous presentation, Stephen Quinn did a great job of explaining why Wal-Mart doesn’t have a problem obsessing on this one customer before straying.  Until she’s delighted, why move on?  And, you don’t sacrifice much business when that one group makes most of the in-store decisions from apparel purchases to the automotive services at Tire and Lube Express  . . . Oh, and she also happens to be the fastest growing user in the social media space, a space where she can meet new people and connect to people she cares about . . . and sure, probably some she doesn’t.  Wal-Mart is doing everything it can to stay out of the latter category by focusing relentlessly on what mom wants, and by getting the 411 directly from the source rather than making wishful, stretchy assumptions about her that discourage her ongoing opt in.

 

Wal-Mart knows one thing about mom:  she wants to save money, and she wants to do it her way . . . She might be a “couponista” or she may like getting price alerts on her iPhone . . . Maybe she’s a “lurker” (or Mr. Andrews’ refinement, an “observer”) who likes to watch and read others’ content . . . or maybe she resides in that 8-10% who actually like creating content themselves (guilty as charged).  Wherever and however mom wants to interact with Wal-Mart is fine with Wal-Mart if it increases loyalty and helps the retailer gain new insights. 

 

Wal-Mart’s also cool with not controlling the conversation . . .

Maybe control would be possible if their view of extended customer connection points stopped at “clicks” . . . It doesn’t.  Wal-Mart’s world of “connect and share” is far vaster and uncontrollably chatty.  If Wal-Mart has managed to stay perfectly on-message even as it brings all of this complexity into the mix, the retailer has no expectation that its customers will. 

 

In the online world, that means incorporating polls, ratings and reviews (over 1,600 ratings are posted each day on Walmart.com), live chat, feedback buttons, discussion boards, Q&A (turns out lots of the people asking questions are store associates), and blogs . . . including engaging outside bloggers and providing connections to them (more on that later).  In-store, it looks like Wal-Mart’s revolutionary Smart Network, a system so paradigm-changing that it warranted its own one hour review.  On the go, we’re talking mobile, including Wal-Mart’s recently-announced iPhone-optimized webapp which can attach to anything that has a data platform.  The “endless aisle” will soon be in the palm of your hand and, if you want the latest in bargains in the meantime, just give out your phone number on www.walmart.com/mobileinfo to have rollback notifications and other budget-friendly headlines pushed to your device.

 

Smelling the future, and in keeping with our “Always right, sometimes early” blogging premise, we hooked up with power blogger, Camille Padilla (www.classymommy.com), one of Wal-Mart’s “elevenmoms,” a couple of months ago (we covered this in our monthly retail e-newsletter:  Smashbook.  Send an email to me at  carol@newmarketbuilders.com if you want a copy).  This was back when the “elevenmoms” were actually twelve, and now there are upwards of twenty mom bloggers going strong under Mr. Andrew’s keep-it-real, hands-off nurturing.  Call him an enabler but don’t accuse him of swaying these clicking chicks.  My conversations with Ms. Padilla confirmed that Wal-Mart has not compensated the moms and that meticulous boundaries have been maintained around where Wal-Mart stops and they start.  Wal-Mart wants the moms to do what they do best:  blog, and in some cases post videos, about money-saving ideas from a mom-friendly perspective.  The moms have posted over 100 videos through the elevenmoms effort (Check out the videos at  www.youtube.com/walmart), and with You Tube quietly becoming the #2 most visited website, that’s a ton of mom-reach.  Want more proof that Wal-Mart is keeping its mitts out of the content?  One blogging mom is known for her prowess at ferreting out bargains . . . at drug chain CVS!  No worries; it’s all good says Wal-Mart.  All of this in an effort to move away from “transactional” relationships to ones that are “more engaged” and “deeper”. . . and I’ll throw in the retail word of the year, “authentic.”  And consumers aren’t the only ones doing the learning.  Wal-Mart flew the elevenmoms into Bentonville not too long ago and gave Eduardo Castro Wright and other top Wal-Mart brass an audience with them.  According to Mr. Andrews, the moms weren’t the ones with sweaty palms, and the insights gained reinforced many of the retailer’s  goals for, and concerns about, moms’ perceptions of the Wal-Mart experience.  Bottom line:  Wal-Mart is listening, not dicating.

 

With nine out of ten Americans shopping at Wal-Mart and 22% knowing someone who works at Wal-Mart or Sam’s Club (here in Bentonville, I think that stat is roughly 100%), even a wee bit of outreach adds up big time.  Every Wal-Mart presentation has to have a few astounding facts . . . What has an audience greater than the Superbowl or the Emmys and Oscars combined?  Well, we know it’s not NBC, right?  It’s your average Wal-Mart store’s weekly throng.  No wonder one Wal-Mart sounded positively modest when he announced that Wal-Mart’s in-store network (Smart Network) will become the #1 network of ANY kind in short order.  Sounds reasonable to me . . . In this world of media fragmentation, a Wal-Mart store is the definition of “captive audience” and this “shopper centric communications platform” will serve as a “dynamic and intelligent learning network” that will connect that audience with products at the point of sale.  Each screen will be aligned with how the customer shops the store and programming will be based on customer mindsets and habits (dovetails with all the talk about “need states,” “life stages,” “missions,” and “occasions” that you’re hearing at the home office).  The Smart Network is just there to help its massive audience learn more, when and how it wants to, and to take that connect and share idea from the Internet to the shelf.  Wal-Mart and its vendors get bennies in the form of “consistent and insightful” sales analysis.  Time to brush up on your terminology or risk joining the ranks of the clueless:   “channel”  isn’t necessarily about how or where someone shops;  “frequency” doesn’t necessarily refer to how often; “networks” may or may not be your friends or on your television, and “screenings” may or may not be happening at the theater or airport!

 

Q&A revealed that Wal-Mart absolutely sees its Smart Network as an education platform, particularly as relates to new product information, and the content will continue to evolve to meet specific needs as insights are gained.

 

When asked what the next generation of the Smart Network looks like, in an acknowledgement to the possibilities, Mr. Andrews quickly answered “I don’t know.”  He went on to clarify that the goal will be to have everything connect to the Smart Network and to continue to offer ways for customers to opt in.  Say, having a notice pop up when you hit the Wal-Mart parking lot, reminding you to refill that prescription and get that oil change.  When you venture into “proximity” marketing, you’re entering a whole new universe of possibilities . . . one that has Mr. Andrews paling around with twenty-somethings like the dude who started brightkite.com, a vaguely twitter-ish “location-based social network” (www.brightkite.com).

 

Don’t you just love a guy who’s not afraid to ask for directions? This is not a job for somber know-it-alls . . . and Mr. Andrew’s enthusiasm, outward focus and desire for input hasn’t waned one bit.  Clearly, reducing Wal-Mart’s current successes and post-recession prospects down to price advantage alone is simplistic when Wal-Mart is connecting the dots in ways that will forever change the relationship between retailer and consumer … and doing so at a time when others are mightily distracted.

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