One for All and One-to-One: John Boswell Connects the Dots for Sam’s Club Suppliers

Our between-the-lines take on the latest Walmart executive presentation in the Bentonville/Bella Vista Chamber’s WalStreet speaker series.

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Three takeaways served as a lead-in to John Boswell’s WalStreet presentation last week: business is good, technology and data are critical to forging connections with members, and Sam’s Club is a great place for suppliers to invest. Of these, technology and data emerged as the central focus for Sam’s as it hits the 30-year anniversary mark.

As senior VP of marketing, insights, and ecommerce, Boswell is in a unique position to drive the “holistic anytime, anywhere experience” that he described as paramount to Sam’s future success. Boswell’s title alone attests to how serious the retailer is about integrating multiple member touch points into its marketing strategies and making the most of the data points it collects from each source.

Early in his presentation, Boswell spoke of the importance of connecting “dots,” his metaphor for data, and not just gathering or looking at them. Thirty years ago, no one could have foreseen that Sam’s membership model would offer it a unique advantage in the big-data-driven digital age. Today, while that is clearly the case, Sam’s must first overcome an obstacle that is both fundamental to its business model and vital to its profitability: convincing consumers that paying for the privilege of shopping at Sam’s is a great investment.

Sam’s isn’t  just myopically pushing for membership inflows and assuming that the rest will take care of itself, however. It is parsing the particulars of its members’ journeys from onboarding to renewal, and looking at ways to customize communication every step of the way.

Boswell outlined the three-pronged framework that underpins its member communication strategy as one-to-all, one-to-many, and one-to-one.

One-to-all encompasses Sam’s mass communications. Boswell cited the company’s recent partnership with Groupon and Living Social as an example.

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Through the campaign, Sam’s sold over 150,000 memberships in a three-day period. Sam’s hookup with Groupon is particularly interesting, as it comes on the heels of Groupon’s announcement last month that it is planning a network of North American warehouses to directly service its two-year-old e-commerce products business, Groupon Goods. The move promises to push the company known for coupons into direct competition with retailers, including Sam’s.

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Boswell cited Sam’s successful Instant Savings platform as a prime example of its more narrowly-focused one-to-many outreach. The retailer changed the name of its digital-coupon program from eValues to Sam’s Instant Savings last year in order to more clearly articulate the benefits. As part of the program, Sam’s sends out Instant Savings Books that highlight special savings above and beyond its usual members-only prices. Rather than clipping coupons, the deals are pre-loaded onto members’ cards and automatically redeemed at checkout. Offers can be also be checked by logging in to SamsClub.com, downloading and logging in to the Sam’s Club mobile phone app, by signing up for Instant Savings emails or by scanning a membership card at the Instant Savings kiosk in a club. In Walmart’s second-quarter fiscal year 2014 earnings call last month, Sam’s CEO Rosalind Brewer referred to Instant Savings as a cornerstone of Sam’s Club membership, driving club traffic and awareness of Sam’s value offerings.

The one-to-many approach is also embodied in Sam’s in-store engagement tactics. Sam’s has taken control of its in-store programming through the creation of an in-club digital network run by Triad Digital Media. In 600 clubs, the TV walls of yesteryear have been replaced by slick digital signage and the system has already reduced new content turnaround to a matter of hours, from a previous timeframe of seven to ten days. According to Boswell, future iterations promise further timeframe reductions and the ability to curate content by-club and by day part. Walmart’s CMO, Stephen Quinn, continues to promote the benefits of supplier participation in its Retail Development Kit concept and Boswell’s reference to Sam’s network as an “integrated digital solution for suppliers” would seem to portend of it heading in a similar direction, by positioning the network as a reach-expander for Sam's brand partners both in-store and online. Of course, retail’s universal hot button, mobile, is part of the equation as well. In last month’s earnings call, the company’s president and CEO of Global Ecommerce, Neil Ashe, credited Sam’s new mobile app for helping drive a nearly 25% increase in average basket size over the previous quarter.

Learn more about RDK: Carol's recap of Walmart CMO, Stephen Quinn's WalStreet presentation. 

On the one-to-one front, Boswell alluded to Sam’s “modeling capabilities,” which allow them to individualize communication by member household, and specifically emphasized the importance of engaging with new members in the first 30, 60, and 90 days of membership. It stands to reason that not only does a non-engaged member buy less, but indifference shuts off the data spigot that is the lifeline of Sam’s insight ecosystem.

Sam’s reliance on supplier partnership and collaboration has been a consistent thread in previous executive presentations to the WalStreet group and Boswell made several references as well.  As Sam’s diversifies and amplifies member engagement through in-club programming and other content marketing strategies, its suppliers have an unprecedented opportunity to help connect the dots beyond products and POS. 


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