Wal-Mart's Biggest Marketing Tool? Its Web Site

Wal-Mart Stores' biggest marketing tool has become Walmart.com, and the consumers who shop online, its megaphone. The Bentonville, Ark., retailer plans to tap the web site to announce several online and in-store promotions that will run from Thanksgiving Day through the following week.

Wal-Mart expects 800 million visits to its web site in 2007. Not all consumers come to the site to make purchases, especially around the holidays. Many will go online to research potential buys. In fact, Walmart.com CEO Raul Vazquez estimates many of the 10 million people who visit Walmart.com on Thanksgiving Day will end up in the store on Friday. "The same behavior driving Google's growth reflects the increase in visitors we see on our web site traffic," he tells Marketing Daily. "Over the next three months we'll have about 300 million visits to the web site."

Tapping into that audience, WalMart.com during the week will start running about 100 special sales, rather than the 50 items featured last year. The site will reveal new items daily. Before the secret items become available, consumers who opt-in by texting the keyword "save" to 96278 (WMart) will get a text message back when WalMart.com reveals the product information on the site.



This holiday season, Vazquez believes electronics will become the hot items on WalMart.com. Consumers will find Apple's iPods and digital cameras from Casio, Canon* and Sony. Microsoft's Xbox 360, Nintendo's Wii and Sony's PlayStation 3, along with an assortment of games, are expected to sell well. There are big-ticket electronics, too, such as LCD TVs from Sony and Samsung and pocket-sized global positioning systems (GPS) from Garmin, Magellan, and tomtom.

The National Retail Federation estimates that holiday sales during November and December will rise 4% in 2007, to $474.5 billion, citing economic concerns for the minuscule up-tick that could spell trouble for discounters and some department stores whose customers want bargains and deals.

Wal-Mart doesn't break out Walmart.com revenue, but Vazquez says that, overall, U.S. online holiday sales are expected to rise about 20% this year. Walmart.com's sales should increase between 40% and 60%.

Supporting the increase, Walmart.com has made improvements to the site. The company added more servers, updated the product database and improved the network and architecture. "Think of the web site as a big store that only has a certain amount of doors consumers can enter through," Vazquez says. "If you have a big crowd outside, you'll have a challenge getting everyone in. Last year during the holidays, we had a huge number of people trying to get into the store at the same time. So, we put in new doors and made the existing ones wider."

Walmart.com also added several features -- such as site to store, find a store, and rate and review -- that the retailer will highlight in upcoming store circulars, national advertisements inserted in newspapers and on television and radio.

The free shipping program, site to store, lets consumers buy merchandise only available online and have it shipped at no charge to any one of more than 3,300 stores. The program represents more than one third of sales at WalMart.com. Since launch in July, Vazquez estimates, it has saved customers more than $25 million in shipping fees by piggybacking deliveries on daily shipments from warehouses to stores using the retailer's fleet of trucks.

Find in Store, a way for consumers to check available inventory online, rolled out in April. It gives consumers access to information on 9,000 items in local stores by going to Wal-Mart.com and typing in their zip code.

The rate and review feature lets consumers post comments about products online. Since the July launch, consumers have written and posted reviews on 80,000 products, with more than 1,000 coming in daily.

"About 80% of items have either a four or five star rating, which gives us confidence we're selling quality merchandise," Vazquez says. "When the service first launched, the suppliers got a little nervous, but even products that get one-or-two star ratings provide useful information and feedback from customers."

*Editor's note: The article was amended post-publication.

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