February 16, 2017, 3:22 PM

What is Wal-Mart's e-commerce strategy?

Wal-Mart’s acquisition of Moosejaw is the latest in a series of recent moves that illustrate the retail giant’s lack of a coherent e-commerce strategy, industry experts say.

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Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s acquisition of outdoor gear retailer Moosejaw is puzzling to a number of retail industry experts.

Consider the context: Wal-Mart is buying up relatively small—and in some cases unprofitable—retailers like Moosejaw, Shoebuy.com Inc. and Jet.com Inc., while Amazon.com Inc. is feverishly swallowing up the e-commerce market and posting growing profits.

Amazon, No. 1 in the Internet Retailer 2016 Top 500 Guide, last year accounted for 43% of all U.S. online retail purchases, including sales Amazon processed for the company’s marketplace partners. In addition, the merchant accounted for more than half of all e-commerce growth in the U.S. last year, according to data gathered by Slice Intelligence, a research firm that tracks email receipts of more than 4.4 million online shoppers to arrive at its sales estimates.

Wal-Mart (No. 4) isn’t doing much to challenge those gains, despite its one big advantage: its size. It operates 11,528 stores under 63 banners in 28 countries and e-commerce sites in 11 countries.

Even though Wal-Mart has sold online since 1999, e-commerce represents a fraction—just 2.8% in 2015—of its total sales.

“That’s horrendous,” says Howard Davidowitz, chairman of retail consulting firm Davidowitz & Associates. “Wal-Mart has spent more than just about anyone when it comes to technology, systems and e-commerce, but that spending isn’t producing results.”

A Wal-Mart spokesman tells Internet Retailer the retailer is focused on growing e-commerce organically, as well as looking for opportunities to buy retailers like Moosejaw that can help it augment or enhance its experience through added product assortment or expertise. And Wal-Mart’s online sales have recently picked up. In its fiscal third quarter, for example, sales on its 11 e-commerce sites worldwide grew 20.6%, and the gross merchandise value—the total value of goods sold on its e-commerce sites—increased 16.8%.

But those gains aren’t enough, says Charles Fishman, author of The Wal-Mart Effect: How the World's Most Powerful Company Really Works—and How It's Transforming the American Economy.”

“For a company of Wal-Mart’s scale, experience and skill, its online performance remains experimental and surprisingly bad,” he says. Wal-Mart reports its earnings next week, but Fishman predicts that Wal-Mart’s online sales were about $18 billion last year, which would be a 31.4% jump from its 2015 online sales. “Sales would have to be five times that—at $100 billion—to be really having an impact, and to compete with Amazon seriously. And to do that, it would have to grow 50% a year, every year for four years, to get there.” 

But Wal-Mart doesn’t seem to have a coherent game plan to catch Amazon—or even to offer a strategy that will drive growth anywhere close to the 27% growth that Amazon posted last year, says Mark Cohen, the former chairman and CEO of Sears Canada Inc. who is now director of retail studies at Columbia University.

“Wal-Mart is in possession of an almost infinite number of darts and they’re firing them at a hypothetical barn in the hope that they’ll hit something,” he says.

One way to understand Wal-Mart’s moves is its attempt to attract a different customer base, Cohen says. 52.36% of Wal-Mart’s online customers have an annual household income of under $60,000, while 59.77% of Moosejaw’s online customers have an average annual household income of more than $60,000, according to Internet Retailer’s Top500Guide.com. Moosejaw also boasts an average online order value that is 16% higher than Wal-Mart’s: an Internet Retailer-estimated $145 compared to $125.

Yet, Moosejaw’s relatively small size—it sold an Internet Retailer-estimated $97.2 million online in 2015—makes the potential impact negligible, Cohen says.

“Wal-Mart is desperately looking for legitimacy that it doesn’t possess,” he says. “[The Moosejaw acquisition] is a pathetic attempt to do so. If Wal-Mart announces 100 of these, maybe it will have a cohesive strategy.”

Cohen points to Apple Inc. (No. 2) as a company that’s made strategic acquisitions that help it build out its capabilities. For instance, Apple acquired BroadMap to add mapping expertise and SnappyLabs to bolster its camera knowhow. Even large-scale deals like its purchase of Beats Electronics have been “additive and accretive to its brand,” Cohen says.

Another way to look at the Moosejaw and Shoebuy deals is that for relatively modest price tags--$51 million and $70 million, respectively—Wal-Mart is adding well-established retailers that have built long-term relationships with apparel and shoe manufacturers, many of whom might not be inclined to build a relationship with Wal-Mart, says James Keller, executive consultant at Bulger Partners and the former executive vice president and chief marketing officer at Shoebuy from 2006-2013.

“Building up those types of relationships and expertise takes a long time to develop,” he says.

While Moosejaw possesses a culture that the Wal-Mart spokesman says the retailer values, Fishman is skeptical about its long-term survival.

“The press information says Moosejaw will retain its culture and will operate separately, and that Moosejaw merchandise won’t migrate into Wal-Mart stores,” he says. “That’s fine. In the long run, Wal-Mart has never bought a retailer and then operated it as a separate entity, never in 50 years. It may do that with Moosejaw, at least for a while—but the point of the purchase isn’t Moosejaw’s sales, but what Moosejaw’s staff understand about online sales culture.”

While some analysts have compared Wal-Mart’s approach to one that Amazon pursued when it bought shoe e-retailer Zappos and Diapers.com parent firm Quidsi, Davidowitz doesn’t see a parallel. “Working for Wal-Mart is not like working at Amazon. 97% of Wal-Mart’s business is bricks-and-mortar, so whatever its e-commerce team is trying to do, [e-commerce] is not the priority.”

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