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Jennifer Marks

Wal-Mart Has a Lot to Say

I'm glad I'm not working for Wal-Mart's clip service. You can't swing a dead cat these days without hitting another piece of Wal-Mart news, whether in the mainstream media or the trades. HTT's pages and Web bulletins included.

The Brahmins of Bentonville have been out in force for months, spreading the word about new initiatives in the attempt to reverse the public perception that it might be The Most Evil Corporation Ever — as well as to move the needle on its stock price.

These folks have a lot of balls in the air: encouraging the use of sustainable resources in the composition of products and packaging; reducing the environmental impact of stores while simultaneously reducing the cost of operating them; further streamlining the supply chain; expanding RFID; creating “stores of the community” that address five separate consumer segments; battling local communities throwing up legislative road blocks; turning up its cool-quotient with trendier advertising, hotter apparel and pop-up shops; and shifting its brand image from “prices” to “values.”

Whew.

Finally, there's that small matter of layering in better merchandise to move more monied shoppers out of the commodity aisles and into the apparel, home and electronics departments — without alienating the core, price-sensitive customer.

I'm of two minds about the strategy. The skeptic believes Wal-Mart is playing a dangerous game in attempting to be all things to all consumers. A whopping 84% of U.S. consumers shop its stores on a regular basis. Only 8% of the population never steps into a Wal-Mart. Surely this constitutes way too much diversity to adequately address on a store-by-store basis.

On the other hand, Wal-Mart has proven itself to be one of the smartest companies not only in the retail business but in business. The company doesn't miss many tricks, and when it stumbles — the Hypermart USA experiment of the 1980s, the short-lived Bud's closeout chain, the dead-end joint ventures in Indonesia, Hong Kong and South Korea — it dusts itself off and applies the lessons learned.

Ten years ago, when Wal-Mart's shares got stuck in the mid-$20s, it embarked on a similar public relations campaign. Once the stock got cooking again, it went about as dark as a public company can.

What's different this time is the need to win back and sustain consumer favor, not just the admiration of Wall Street. We may, in fact, be witnessing the beginning of a permanent campaign.

Keep your dead cats handy.

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