For the last decade, Wal-Mart has been "dead money" in investor parlance. After a big jump between 1995 and 2000, the stock today is still worth less than it was in 2000. There has been volatility, which might have benefited some traders. But for most of the decade Wal-Mart's price has been lower. There has been excitement because recently the price has been catching up with where it was in 2002, even though there have been no real gains for long term investors.
What happened to Wal-Mart was the market shifted. For many years being the market leader with every day low pricing was a winning strategy. Wal-Mart was able to expand from town to town opening new stores, all pretty much alike, doing the same thing and making really good money.
Then competitors took aim at Wal-Mart, and found out they could beat the giant.
Eventually the number of towns that both needed, and justified, a new Wal-Mart (or Sam's Club) dried up. Wal-Mart reacted by expanding many stores, making them "bigger and better," even adding groceries to some. But that added only marginally to revenue, and even less marginally to profits.
And Wal-Mart tried exporting its stores internationally, but that flopped as local market competitors found ways to better attract local customers than Wal-Mart's success formula offered.
Other U.S. discounters, like Target and Kohl's, offered nicer stores with more varieties or classier merchandise – and often their pricing was not much higher, or even the same. And a new category of retailer, called "dollar stores" emerged that beat Wal-Mart's price on almost everything for the true price shopper. These 99 cent stores became really popular, and the fastest growing traditional retail concept in America. Simultaneously, big box retailers like Best Buy expanded their merchandise and footprint into more locations, dramatically increasing the competition against local Wal-Mart's stores.
But, even more dramatically, the whole retail market began shifting on-line.
Amazon, and its brethren, kept selling more and more products. And at prices even lower than Wal-Mart. And again, for price shoppers, the growth of eBay, Craigslist and vertical market sites made it possible for shoppers to find slightly used, or even new, products at prices lower than Wal-Mart, and shipped right into the customer's home. With each year, people found less need to buy at Wal-Mart as the on-line options exploded.
More recently, traditional price-focused retailers have been attacked by mobile devices. Firstly, there's the new Kindle Fire. In just one quarter it has gone from nowhere to tied as the #1 Android tablet
The Kindle Fire is squarely targeted at growing retail sales for Amazon, making it easier than ever for customers to ignore the brick-and-mortar store in favor of on-line retailers.
On top of this, according to Pew Research 52% of in-store shoppers now use a mobile device to check price and availability on-line of products as they look in the store. Thus a customer can look at products in Wal-Mart, and while standing in the aisle look for that same product, or comparable, in another store on-line. They can decide they like the work boots at Wal-Mart, and even try them on for size. Then they can order from Zappos or another on-line retailer to have those boots shipped to their home at an even lower price, or better warranty, even before leaving the Wal-Mart store.
It's no wonder then that Wal-Mart has struggled to grow its revenues. Wal-Mart has been a victim of intense competition that found ways to attack its success formula effectively.
Then Wal-Mart implemented its "Shoot Yourself in the Head" strategy
What did Wal-Mart recently do? According to Reuters Wal-Mart decided to transfer its entire marketing department to work for merchandising. Marketing was moved from reporting to the CEO, to reporting into Sales. The objective was to put all the energy of marketing into trying to further defend the Wal-Mart business, and drive up same-store sales. In other words, to make sure marketing was fully focused on better executing the old, struggling success formula.
The marketing department at Wal-Mart does all the market research on customers, trends and advertising – traditional and on-line. Marketing is the organization charged with looking outside, learning and adapting the organization to any market shifts. In this role marketing is expected to identify new competitors, new market solutions that are working better, and adapt the organization to shifting market needs. It is responsible to be the eyes and ears of the organization, and then think up new solutions addressing these external inputs. That's why it needs to report to the CEO, so it can drive toward new solutions that can revitalize the organization and keep it growing with new market trends.
But now, it's been shot. Reporting to sales, marketing's role directed at driving same store sales is purely limiting the function to defending and extending the success formula that has produced lackluster results for 12 years. Marketing is no longer in a position to adapt Wal-Mart. Instead, it is tasked to find ways to do more, better, faster, cheaper under the leadership of the sales organization.
When faced with market shifts, winning companies adapt. Look at how skillfully Amazon has moved from book seller to general merchandise seller to offering a consumer electronic device.
Unfortunately, too many businesses react to market shifts like Wal-Mart. They hunker down, do more of the same and re-organize to "increase focus" on the traditional business as results suffer. Instead of adapting the company hopes more focus on execution will somehow improve results.
Not likely. Expect results to go the other direction. There might be a short-term improvement from the massive influx of resource, but long term the trends are taking customers to new solutions. Regardless of the industry leader's size. Don't expect Wal-Mart to be a long-term winner. Better to invest in competitors taking advantage of trends.