For at least two generations, Walmart has stood for more than just retail. The chain, born in Arkansas, has long served as a cultural, economic and even political signifier — telling others that one shopped at Walmart, or disliked its corporate policies, opened up a host of assumptions and judgements.
This story is not about all the psychology and sociology — novelists, filmmakers and doctoral candidates would do better, in any case. Rather, recent news from the land of Walmart has provided an opportunity to take a step back and consider all the things that one of the world’s most important retailers has become.
No doubt many have already heard that Walmart is becoming wetter.
The chain this week said it has launched its Winemakers Selection, a line of 10 “distinctive labels” from California, France and Italy. Walmart’s senior wine buyer reportedly said the retailer will sell the wines for about $11 per bottle, though each one will be of high quality. (You can easily find sophisticated big-city sommeliers who mock that idea that one must spend more than $12 or $15 per bottle of wine to get something really good, by the way.)
Wine may or may not represent an upscale lifestyle, but the chain has made strides to position itself as more than a destination for budget shoppers. In May, for instance, reports had Walmart and Lord & Taylor teaming up to create a store within Walmart.com for sales of such high-level fashion brands as Tommy Bahama, La La Anthony, H Halston and Effy.
That deal followed Walmart’s acquisition of Bonobos, an online men’s clothing brand with a customer base that includes more than a few aspirational or idealistic young men, some of whom expressed disdain for the deal.
“This decision was for money, not for your customers. Your customers are mainly people like me, millennials who shop online so as to avoid giving our dollars … to community-killing super stores,” read one Facebook comment, according to CNN.
Walmart also has a personal shopping service, which was recently renamed Jetblack, from Code Eight. Though there were not many details available about the service, job listings called it a “members-only personal shopping and concierge service that combines the convenience of eCommerce with the customized attention of a personal assistant.” The service reportedly remains in beta in Manhattan.
Go further back to recall the $3.3 billion that Walmart paid for Jet.com— a deal that dovetailed with the billions Walmart had already spent on eCommerce upgrades, including the construction of seven new distribution centers, the hiring of additional staff in eCommerce operations and the rollout of such digitally enticing services like Walmart Pay. Jet.com continues to operate as a separate website from Walmart.com.
That deal was a clear move against Amazon, with its U.S. sales are projected to top Walmart’s in three years, according to a recent prediction from JPMorgan. However, not every Walmart move need be seen as a direct shot at Amazon. The chain’s revised home furnishings website can be viewed as an attempt to gain shoppers who prefer Target over Walmart, for example.
How much will Walmart’s evolving identity help its profits as Amazon gains and other competitors get even more aggressive about eCommerce? That’s hard to say. But for shoppers from a certain generation and income level, it is fun to remember how far the brand has come.