Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wal-Mart?

On January 1 Wal-Mart opened the latest version of its online store, and the consensus among the press and analysts was much the same: Be afraid, they wrote, be very afraid.

Well, I’ve been there. I read the book, saw the movie, bought the T-shirt. (OK, I didn’t buy the T-shirt – if a technology reporter has anything in abundance, it’s T-shirts.)

I concluded that if you like going to your local Wal-Mart, you may like Walmart.com. But if you like going to your local Wal-Mart, you have an alternative to Walmart.com – your local Wal-Mart.

Click around the database-driven site a few minutes and you’ll see what I mean. The site is well organized and there’s a map. And – guess what! – the site looks a lot like a real Wal-Mart, complete with merchandise spilling off the shelves into your face! (Wal-Marts are notoriously messier places than, say, Targets – that’s one way you know you’re getting a good deal.) Unlike a real store, where it’s candy or boxes of baby formula at your feet, here it’s more expensive stuff on a screen, arranged carefully by price from $25 to $150.

This doesn’t mean Walmart.com won’t be a success. You’ll see a steady stream of press releases over the next several months bragging on its success. You’ll see carefully scripted numbers for visitors, for sales, and for growth. Walmart.com will do a good job attracting Wal-Mart shoppers.

But if you’re comparing it to a web-based operation like, say, Amazon, Walmart.com doesn’t compare. It’s very insistent that you use the “My Wal-Mart” personalization system and, thus, that you input personal data. Amazon, by contrast, begins personalizing with the first click, and only after you become a buyer there does it greet you by name. Walmart.com expects this trust up-front.

That’s a key Clue to understanding this site. It’s a defensive play. It’s designed around Wal-Mart shoppers. It’s aimed at stopping the bleeding. If the site is a bit late, that’s only because Wal-Mart shoppers are, as a group, probably late to the web. But give them the same Wal-Mart online they know in real life, the thinking goes, and why should they change?

Well, there are lots of reasons to change, but here’s the most important – implicit targeting. Walmart.com uses explicit targeting – you tell the site what you want, and that’s what it shows you. At Amazon you click around, you buy, and the system adapts to what you’ve done.

Implicit targeting isn’t perfect. Right now, Amazon is showing me things I already bought for Christmas. The difference is that Amazon provides a targeting service before I give it my trust, while Walmart.com demands this trust up-front.

What’s strange is this is not something Wal-Mart does in the real world. I can go to my local Wal-Mart, pull some batteries off the shelf, and not get a demand at the check-out counter for my name, my phone number, or my zip code, as I’ve gotten recently from Radio Shack, Kids R Us, and Best Buy.

Call me old-fashioned, but I want my trust earned, not demanded.

When Walmart.com figures that out and provides real service without making demands, then it will be on the right track. Until then, don’t worry about them.

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