Walmart.com: delivering impact "when she's making choices"

 “On target and on brand” . . . the Holy Grail of retail these days and the title of this week's presentation from Walmart’s Senior Marketing Director, PK Van Deloo, and his co-presenter, Sherry Smith, Triad Digital Media’s VP and General Manager.  The pair presented as part of the Bentonville Chamber’s speaking series for Walmart vendors.

(key terms bolded)  No Walmart presentation is complete without mind-bending stats and Mr. Van Deloo had those from the get-go. Walmart.com boasts 40 million unique visitors each month which spikes to as high as 80 million during the holiday season. To put that in perspective, that’s more monthly visitors than the New York Times, Monster, CNN, NBC and a host of other high-profile media outlets can claim . . . Now why would Walmart be comparing its stats against MEDIA outlets? I think because Walmart.com, and any other retail website worth its hits, IS a media outlet . . . and, if you’re Walmart, you see your store as falling into that category as well (hello Smart Network). This is the unspoken point that keeps jumping out at me . . . most retailers still think of their stores and their websites as a place to sell stuff and they run both operations accordingly. Walmart was, and is, ahead of the curve by fully embracing the connectivity opportunity.

Speaking of connectivity, Walmart customers are connecting to Walmart.com . . . not as briskly as Walmart would like according to Mr. Van Deloo, but definitely not slouching. Walmart hosts 130 million customers each week and 75% of those customers also use the Internet (flies in the face of some popular elitist assumptions, but enough about the haters). A respectable 50% have visited Walmart.com, generating 150 million page views per month. With incremental spending resulting from dot com visits hitting 74% and never lower than 50%, Walmart is heck-bent on jacking up those visits in order to positively impact store sales. Walmart’s mantras and tag lines have become the envy of the industry and if you ask me, “one brand, one customer, in multiple channels” is spot-on in terms of describing both Walmart’s multi-channel philosophy and how brands should frame their strategies.

Walmart stays in the top twenty of most visited Internet sites throughout the year then leaps to top ten during the holidays as shoppers seek out Black Friday specials and accelerate their gift research. BTW, who knew that research would become the number one reason that shoppers visit many websites? And who anticipated that retailers would not only play along but enable it at every turn? With 40% of Walmart.com visitors conducting research before making purchases, Walmart.com is all over the opportunity and that’s probably why it has more research visitors than Sears, Target, Kmart and many other retailers with online presence.

So what are shoppers researching? I was surprised that home and living led the pack at 31.5%. My pick for tops actually came in second: personal electronics, at 27%. More vexing to me was the fact that shoppers research food and beverage AT ALL. I mean, what in the world is there to research? And on Walmart.com? I had to check it out for myself. Hmmm, if I were a mom, I would definitely dig the nutritional information provided on some of the snack items . . . and researching it in advance of a store trip vs. when the stuff is being thrust at me by a pleading kiddo could calm the chaos. And if I were a harried mom and it was, say, 4:59ish, I might find it interesting that a bottle of Robert Mondavi Pinot Noir is calling my name just over the legal border in Pineville, Arkansas. I would know that because of the nifty new “find in store” feature (one of Walmart.com’s three key initiatives), which locates the nearest store stocking a particular product. Post-localization shopper sanity restored!

So, now I get why 76% of Walmart shoppers conduct research on Walmart.com before purchasing . . . Actually, I was on my way to this insight two days ago when the 60-year-old gentleman who was servicing my office alarm system excitedly shared how he uses Walmart.com to research music before he bootlegs it off of other sites; the better to feed his appetite for Nickelback and Slipknot (you can’t make this stuff up). “Mom” may be Walmart’s main squeeze, but others will not be denied!

Walmart is holding fast to its claims that its dot com shoppers aren’t much different from those who shop its stores: 25-54 years old with an income of 60K+. 55.6% are female and 44.4% are male. The interesting part to me is how intent some brands are on separating their marketing strategies between bricks customers and those who click. Should they take a page from Walmart and go for concentration and focus or continue down the divide and conquer route?

Mr. Van Deloo went on to drill deeper into Walmart.com’s two other key initiatives: Site to Store and customer ratings and reviews. Site to Store isn’t just a convenience feature, it also gives shoppers access to the full breadth of SKU’s that are carried exclusively online. In addition to the oft-cited stat that two thirds of shoppers who utilize the Site to Store feature buy, on average, $60.00 more in merchandise once they collect the STS item, we learned that more than half of STS orders come from entirely new customers making their first visits to the site.

Ratings and reviews have gone from risky scheme to mandate for every retailer that has an online presence and Walmart wasn’t going to let everyone else have the fun. Ratings and reviews figure prominently across the site in every category from the expected (consumer electronics) to the unexpected: I checked out one reviewer who took the time to wax rhapsodic about Walmart’s Great Value reduced fat wheat crackers and their likeness to Wheat Thins, calling them a “best kept secret.” Uh, hoping this review rolled in AFTER the Great Value reformulations (or perhaps Walmart’s found a way to make a divine cracker complete nirvana). 80% of purchase decisions are influenced by reviews and 62% of shoppers read them so don’t look for these to go away anytime soon.

It isn’t often that Walmart shares the dais with non-Walmart authorities so Triad Digital Media’s inclusion in the presentation speaks to the trust and partnership between the two companies. Sherry Smith from Triad drilled down on the structure of the site itself, along with insights regarding functionality, linkage upgrades and specific marketing campaigns.

Ms. Smith led with the fact that moms control 85% of all spending and those moms increasingly are leveraging digital applications in order to organize their lives, find bargains and take care of their families. Walmart.com is doing everything in its power to facilitate these needs with a particular focus on reaching researching moms. According to Ms. Smith, shoppers spend 9 minutes on average within the site’s Food and Recipe Center (launched in 2008) and view 5.8 pages on average while there. Websites such as Epicurious know the power of recipes to drive traffic and ad sales and Walmart is getting in on the action by providing enough relevant content, tips, tools and secrets to keep mom engaged for, well, at least 9 minutes! Walmart plans to add a baby section soon that will be geared primarily toward expecting moms.

In terms of advertising and content opportunities for brands, Walmart.com’s brand showcases offer “always on” presence and even links to your own corporately-branded website. Ms. Smith encouraged brands to bring their national banner ads to Walmart.com and she cited Ziploc’s use of embedded video, Kellogg’s breakfast calculator and Zyrtec’s pollen calculator (which gives pollen counts by zip code) as innovative engagement tools . . . and engagement is critical when Walmart has tracked a 68% increase in time spent on pages when interactivity is added.

Brands such as 3M have sponsored entire categories (the gifts and celebrations center); however, Ms. Smith was quick to point out that fractional commitments are welcome as well. Sampling campaigns have been quite successful for Walmart.com (with a 5% click-through rate and opt-in gold to boot) and you can see sampling offers peppered throughout the site; however, not every product lends itself to sampling and not every vendor is able to provide samples. Walmart.com is encouraging brands to co-create compelling campaigns that leverage a variety of tools and tactics, sampling being just one.

Continuing in the hair-splitting world of click-through rates, Ms. Smith categorized click-through success into three imperatives: 1. Having the right creative; 2. Using the right process, including working within their 8-week lead times; and 3. Utilizing the right media placements (ones that are “contextually relevant”). If all three are mastered, brands can enjoy a return rate that is 3-5 times the industry average.

One of the overriding themes that stayed with me throughout the presentation is how downright MEASURABLE all of this has become. I know that many vendors still think of internet spends as risky, airy fairy dart throws; however, both Mr. Van Deloo and Ms. Smith made compelling, data-filled arguments for ROI and performance measurement. They know, for example, that the industry average banner ad click through is .14%; for Walmart.com, it’s .42%. Fractional stuff but do the math and Walmart.com is tracking at three times the average.

Speaking of tracking . . . The standard measurements of click through rates and time-on-page reports are still relevant, and Walmart provides these to brands; however, Ms. Smith pointed out that Walmart.com is happy to provide more sophisticated and customized data to its brand sponsors. They now can correlate and track online impressions and in-store sales lift and integrate Retail Link data into their measurements. Bottom line: Walmart and its participating brands can more closely track the impact that brands’ online presence is having to in-store sales.

Q&A was lively and launched with a question I’ve heard more than once: Is there an opportunity for male consumers on dot com? Seriously, in three separate mom-focused Walmart executive presentations, I’ve had after-preso sidebars with men who expressed their concern over Walmart’s seeming indifference to them from a marketing standpoint. Ms. Smith responded that Walmart.com is building out an auto center and other “Male friendly centers” soon and threw in the even personal care is not just about women on the site.

The next question was about Walmart’s elevenmoms initiative. Has it represented a “big shift” for Walmart? Mr. Van Deloo clarified that it was a “pilot,” not necessarily a big shift and that the key will be to continue to get the word out.

One question focused on where content development is going; is it vendor-sponsored or third party? Mr. Van Deloo said that it was a good mix of both and that transparency was key; fully disclosing which content is provided by third parties vs. brands.

With store navigability and traffic patterns as the fertile frontier, one vendor asked if Walmart.com would have the capability of showing shoppers where a product is located in a given store. Mr. Van Deloo responded that this was “on the radar” and that they are “looking at it.”

What about integration with smart phones? A mobile app is on the way; however, some content is better suited for the website and may never make its way to mobile.

The world of Walmart.com is changing so rapidly, I suggest that brands, even those that don’t have a presence on the site, make it a weekly destination just as they do Walmart stores (you do that, right?). Even if you’re not planning a major ad buy, there’s no harm in lurking and learning . . . about what your competitors are doing, where Walmart is focusing (remember, online is aligning with offline), and what Walmart shoppers are saying. Clearly, Walmart.com isn’t a speculative play or fringe initiative, it’s measurable, it’s a vital link in the shopper decision continuum and it allows you to continue the conversation. I think Mr. Van Deloo articulated the opportunity perfectly early in his presentation: "Delivering impact when she’s making choices.”