How Walmart Is Reinventing The “Age Of The Customer”


There is an old saying in retail (and the rest of the service sector) that anyone who has ever had to operate a cash register for pay knows, and knows very well – “the customer is always right.”

The exact origin of that phrase is unknown. While it can be traced back to the early 20th century, some attribute it to department store magnate Marshall Field, while others attribute the expression to the “father of modern advertising” Albert Lasker.

In the intervening 115 years or so since the expression first entered into popular circulation – the world of retail has grown, changed, evolved and re-invented itself several times. And, it seems with the emergence of mobile, retail, once again, finds itself on the precipice of a major sea change when it comes to how merchants sell, and how consumers buy.

One might assume the world’s largest retailer – Walmart – might be less than wholly pumped for the reinvention of retail. After all, in the last 25-30 years, Walmart has not only succeeded, it has been the one to actually force the reinvention of retail on just about everyone else. (See the infographic below for more on just how big a force Walmart really is).  Still, it’s hard to imagine that they were really hoping for another paradigm shift.


But, according to Walmart’s VP of eCommerce Nikhil Raj, our imaginations may be misled. As it turns out, Walmart is onboard and ready to get reinventing.

“When we think about reinventing something, we really have to go back to what it was before and how it is changing now,” Raj told MPD CEO Karen Webster in a recent conversation.

“Early on it was ‘the age of the brands,’” Raj remarked. “Twenty-five or 30 years ago retailers, in general, relied heavily on our brand partners and followed their guidance. It was the age of the retailer.”

And, according to Raj, this “the age of the retailer,” is an age that is now drawing to a close.

“In the last five years, we have really seen the beginning of the age of the consumer, and that is how retail is re-inventing itself. The breadth and depth of the choices consumers have today to help them shop is truly amazing. It is also putting the power square in the hands of the consumers and we as retailers have to be focused on that to be successful for the next 50 years,” Raj noted.

It is not that customers are less loyal exactly, Raj noted, or entirely inclined toward straying. But smart merchants have to work harder and do different things to capture their loyalty.

“Mobile has created opportunities to engage with customers that didn’t exist before and to serve them in way that didn’t exist before,” Raj told Webster. “We have also created an instant gratification because I press a button and the thing I wants just comes up and now customers have simply come to expect that level of speed and responsiveness. If you can meet those expectations, you have an amazing ability to build that loyalty. If you can’t – well, now you have a bigger challenge than you’ve ever had before.”

Walmart, Raj said, is up to the challenge, and in fact even brings some very special advantages to the race. While there are many claims to ubiquity floating around out there in the commerce ecosystem, Walmart is one of the few that can make a pretty serious claim on the title because there is almost literally a Walmart everywhere.

And that scale, said Raj, is important because the nature of mobile rewards Walmart’s scale.

“The thing that differentiates mobile from everything else is location,” Raj explains. “Dynamic consumers are moving around and mobile allows us to contextualize where the consumer is and how to reach them. There is a lot of scale in the brick and mortar and we are investing big in eCommerce. We are in a very unique position in the entire market to be able to deliver to the consumer services that seamlessly integrate their digital and brick-and-mortar experiences.”

How does that integration drive the retail reinvention in the age of the consumer?

Well, take for instance, Raj offers, a soccer mom who realizes she forgot the Gatorade for this week’s game, and therefore the prospect that a bunch of 11-year-old soccer players won’t have any for the game. With a mobile phone and a nearby Walmart, Gatorade could be delivered field side before game time. Or when the single parent of a sick child needs Tylenol at 2 a.m. and can order via mobile and have it delivered instantly, instead of having to wait until morning or taking a sick child out to the store.

“We get a chance to serve the consumer not just in the store, but where they are and when they need it.” Raj said. “There are changes to users’ technology so that we can deliver a better service.”

And while Walmart brings advantages to the marketplace, it also faces challenges from retailers or retail-ish type business that come to the playing field with a very different set of skills.

“There are very, very big players that are well established in traditional eCommerce. There’s also a lot of activity in other ‘digital and media platforms’ for lack of a better term that have already been garnering consumer attention in one service that are now then spreading into another area that includes shopping,” Raj said. “There are a number of things coming at us in different ways.”

And while most players would be nervous to have the likes of Amazon and Facebook sniffing around their marketplaces, Raj said Walmart is ready to do what it does best and what it has always done best: offer the best consumer experience.

“The growth of mobile has taken the entire industry by storm, not just us,” Raj observes. “We want to stand behind our brand promise that we are about everyday low price, not about offers and deals or those types of business models. That is not us. What we’re about is using technology to bring digital and brick and mortar together so consumers are just getting what they need. If you have the right price and assortment, you can make it accessible to them and give them a good experience – it doesn’t matter if it is physical in store or mobile. It all comes down to the consumer because that is the fundamentals.”

And while many things have been written about Walmart over the years — good and bad — no one has ever doubted their iron grip on the fundamentals of commerce. So when Raj told Webster that Walmart does “actually believe that this will ultimately enable brick and mortar more and more,” it doesn’t sound like pie-eyed optimism.

“Consumers don’t get up in the morning and say, ‘I’m going to go omnichannel shopping today,’” Raj told Webster. “They say – ‘I’m going shopping.’ All of these boundaries that come from channel or assortment, or technology or mobile or desktop – that is all really just various ways to get at what is the best way to give consumers what they want. The goal is making the consumer happy.”

For more on Walmart’s digital reinvention, Nikhil Raj and other retail industry visionaries will join PYMNTS this August 4th & 5th in Chicago for Retail Reinvention, a 2-day experience designed to help merchants navigate the current and future wave of disruption across the retail payment and commerce landscape. 

Click here to reserve your spot today!


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