Maybe Americans’ bad taste can be reformed! Gary McWilliams reports:
The Wal-Mart Era, the retailer’s time of overwhelming business and social influence in America, is drawing to a close.
Rival retailers lured Americans away from Wal-Mart’s low-price promise by offering greater convenience, more selection, higher quality, or better service. Amid the country’s growing affluence, Wal-Mart has struggled to overhaul its down-market, politically incorrect image while other discounters pitched themselves as more upscale and more palatable alternatives. The Internet has changed shoppers’ preferences and eroded the commanding influence Wal-Mart had over its suppliers.
As a result, American shoppers are increasingly looking for qualities that Wal-Mart has trouble providing. “For the first time in a long time, quality has a chance to gain on price,” says Lee Peterson, a vice president at Dublin, Ohio-based brand consulting firm WD Partners Inc.
The company’s unquenchable thirst for scale has been the secret to its market-changing power. “What we are is a ‘supercenter’ with one-stop shopping,” said Wal-Mart’s Vice Chairman John Menzer at an investors’ conference last month. The company expects each year to build another 170 to 190 of the 200,000-square-foot supercenters that are its hallmark and convert 500 smaller discount stores to the bigger format over the next five years. “We would love to wave a magic wand and [make] every one of our discount stores a supercenter,” he says.
But that very focus on scale is now a weakness, for the world has changed on Wal-Mart. The big-box retailing formula that drove Wal-Mart’s success is making it difficult for the retailer to evolve. Consumers are demanding more freshness and choice, which means that foods and new clothing designs must appear on shelves more frequently. They are also demanding more personalized service. Making such changes is difficult for Wal-Mart’s supercenters, which ascended to the top of retailing by superior efficiency, uniformity and scale.