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Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. (WMT), Amazon.com, Inc. (AMZN): Who’s Better?

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Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. (WMT)If I were compiling a list a la High Fidelity style of the “Top 5 Things That Make Life Easier,” Amazon.com, Inc. (NASDAQ:AMZN)’s online shopping would make the cut.

I was an early online shopper. I didn’t need any convincing that perusing a wide array of offerings on my schedule and in the comfort of my home was not only usually more pleasant than shopping with the masses in most stores, but also a time saver. I know I’m in good company.

I’ve read several articles recently about Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. (NYSE:WMT)s e-commerce push. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. (NYSE:WMT) doesn’t break out its online sales, but said its goal is to do $9 billion of its 2013 revenues on the internet. That’s less than 2% of its total sales, which were $469 billion in fiscal 2013. Most articles cite the considerable potential, given e-commerce is projected to grow faster than any other retail segment. (Nielsen predicts e-commerce will grow at an 11% CAGR through 2017, while supercenters – which includes Wal-Mart – will have growth rates only about half that.) Some claim Amazon.com, Inc. (NASDAQ:AMZN) needs to watch out. I agree about the potential. But I don’t think Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. (NYSE:WMT) presents much of a threat to Amazon.com, Inc. (NASDAQ:AMZN).

2 main groups comprise the potential Wal-Mart online shoppers

1. Those who regularly shop in-store at Wal-Mart

Wal-Mart could have some success converting some of its existing in-store shoppers to online shoppers. This should enable it to cut some costs. However, cost cutting only goes so far, especially for low-margin businesses (Wal-Mart’s profit margin was 3.6% in fiscal 2013). For long-term success, the focus needs to be on revenue growth. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. (NYSE:WMT) would need these existing customers to spend more online than they do in-store.

Wal-Mart plans to focus on online food sales, a good plan because packaged foods and other consumables (personal care items, etc.) generally have higher margins. Additionally, while overall e-commerce sales are growing at 11% a year, sales of consumables are growing at an almost 20% rate, per Nielsen.

But there’s a big issue. Online shopping has been around for a long time. So, there are likely good reasons why non-online shoppers or infrequent online shoppers have not embraced online shopping. Wal-Mart can spiff up its site and offer good deals to try to entice people to its site, but its efforts will be futile for those who:

Consider in-store shopping enjoyable;

Consider shopping a social activity;

Don’t trust their data online;

Don’t use credit or debit cards or have bank accounts (reportedly, about 25% of Wal-Mart’s core shoppers);

Aren’t comfortable using computers or don’t have one;

Have high instant gratification needs. (Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. (NYSE:WMT) has same-day delivery in certain areas, but to some, this is still not as good as ‘get in car to get it NOW.’)

The ‘order online and pickup at lockers’ (within stores) concept, which is in the testing phase, could appeal to some in the ‘don’t trust data online,’ ‘don’t use cards or checks,’ and/or ‘want it now!’ categories.

2. Those who don’t regularly shop at Wal-Mart, but shop online

These folks don’t need convincing to let their fingers do the shopping. However, the big issue here: This group is already heavily in the Amazon camp. I don’t see Wal-Mart winning over many in this group for these reasons:

(i) Selection

Amazon’s biggest plus is its huge selection. It’s not just the online shopping many like; it’s as much the one-stop aspect.

I checked Wal-Mart’s site for several items I regularly buy. No luck. One item is Solgar brand Vitamin C. Solgar doesn’t have fillers and other additives that most vitamin brands do. Wal-Mart had one acceptable (to me) brand of Vitamin C – and only carried it in a powder. Meanwhile, Amazon.com, Inc. (NASDAQ:AMZN)’s offerings are immense.

Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. (NYSE:WMT) does not carry several items I buy regularly. Amazon.com, Inc. (NASDAQ:AMZN) carries just about everything. So, why order from two (or three, or four) places? That means getting on two, three, or four sites, and also receiving two, three, or four packages. A key goal for many online shoppers is to simplify.

(ii) Useful Assistance

We could use many categories, but let’s use books since they’re at Amazon’s core. The key to Amazon’s popularity is not just its selection, but also how easy it is to find book recommendations because of all the reviews and Amazon.com, Inc. (NASDAQ:AMZN)’s algorithms. Its “New For You” and “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” algorithms work well, which isn’t a surprise given the company’s immense amount of data. It’s like having your own personal assistant.

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