Some saw it as the greatest test of middle America’s potential to shift its collective buying behavior online when Wal-Mart (NYSE: WMT) and Kmart (NYSE: KM) debuted splashy Web sites.
Whatever the cause, Walmart.com and BlueLight.com have not lived up to expectations. Not so unexpectedly, Kmart announced it would buy all shares of BlueLight.com that it does not already own, and at almost the same moment, Wal-Mart announced its own intention to buy all minority interests in Walmart.com.
Blame it on a sluggish economy, a stock market that doesn’t seem to like dot-coms, or even a fickle consumer base that still likes to push carts down the aisles and touch the linens. Whether the attempt by Kmart and Walmart to be real players in the New Economy was a noble experiment or a true hope, last week they essentially admitted some level of defeat in the electronic marketplace.
While both companies made headline news coast to coast with their plans to restructure and essentially downplay the e-tail end of their operations, the first question that comes to mind has to do with the timing. How is it that two of the country’s biggest retailers just happened to reveal parallel plans on the same day? Is coincidence the only answer?
In any event, retailers who face the same dilemma that Kmart and Wal-Mart faced continue to talk of “re-integrating” their e-commerce initiatives into their parent companies. That’s corporate-speak for “We gave it a shot and it’s costing us too much to be e-tailers.”
So perhaps the most important question to address regarding Kmart and Walmart is how come it came to this point. After all, if those two giants can’t make a go of it online, can anybody?
Trend, Not a Trend
When Staples (Nasdaq: SPLS) made a similar move not so long ago, nobody panicked, though it was a bit disconcerting that the second largest office supply chain (after Office Depot) was struggling to make e-commerce work for itself.
When Saks Fifth Avenue decided to fold its Web unit back into its parent company, it raised some eyebrows in the e-commerce industry. Saks had only been online for about a year.
But stacking up the current crunch facing Wal-Mart and Kmart next to those other “re-integrations” is an apples-to-oranges comparison.
Staples and Saks each had a somewhat specialized audience. Wal-Mart and Kmart, on the other hand, often succeed at being all things to all shoppers. Need towels? Car batteries, greeting cards, lipstick, sports drinks, underwear? They’ve got it all.
And now it’s all under one brick-and-click roof.
Kmart and Walmart have strong identities and instant name recognition with the buying public. These are probably the main reasons that each mega-retailer felt it could safely spin off their Web operations into separate, almost independent companies.
Hindsight being what it is, each company is probably kicking itself at this moment for being naive.
If there is a lesson to be learned from the disappointing commercial performance of BlueLight.com and Walmart.com, it is simply that making assumptions about the buying public can be dangerous.
The two companies had no way of knowing if or when the consumer base would respond to its favorite retailers going electronic. To have plunged in so aggressively and quickly to online selling was probably not wise.
In a published statement the day of the announcement, a spokesperson for Walmart.com said, “What we learned is that there is one customer — irrespective of the channel.”
It would seem that if the company chose to make any assumptions upfront about its customers, it would have been this one. To spend millions of dollars to find that out is shortsighted.
Meanwhile investors, customers and pundits will all hold their breath waiting to see if the giant retailers can regroup and make a go of it online.
I fully expect to see both of them online five years from now.
Simply because by then, more of middle America will be savvy computer owners and users, and apt to order everything from gym bags to vitamins to paper towels online.
The plain fact is Wal-Mart and Kmart tried too hard too soon, just like so many others who have come and gone. The difference is Wal-Mart and Kmart can summon their resources to keep trying.
Note: The opinions expressed by our columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the E-Commerce Times or its management.