Wal-Mart vs. Amazon and the continuing death wheeze of retail.

I have written in the past about the impending death of store front retail. This new story from the Wall Street Journal, seems to both confirm my prediction, and lay out what I feel is a cleaver transformation for the world’s largest physical retailer, Wal-Mart. (Sorry for the link to Gizmodo rather than directly to the WSJ. It seems Rupert Murdoch doesn’t understand the internet, and puts his content behind a paywall. In any evert, there’s no need to read the WSJ story anyway, other places have covered it quitewell)

The plan by Wal-Mart is to fight Amazon by allowing customers to “pick up” their orders via a drive through windows. Someone could order stuff online via wal-mart.com and then pick it up conveniently at their local store.

Of all the ideals I’ve heard in the past two years about saving “traditional” retail stores, this is the first one I feel has real merit. But this ideal is not completely new. Best Buy has had a “buy online, pick up in store” system for a few years. The difference is that Best Buys system required you to enter the store and “check out” much in the same way you would have to do if yo had just gone into the store in the first place.

Best Buy, like most Big Box electronics retailer are located in store fronts that necessitate a small hassle to transfer your purchases from the store to your car. I feel for most shoppers the effort of parking, hiking into the store, and lugging your stuff back to car, completely overshadows the “convenience” of Buying Online. If you are going to go through the effort to enter a store, why not browse while you are there?

Wal-Marts approach of having easily accessible drive up locations for product transfer I think hits the mark. For me, I don’t shop at Wal-Mart. I think despite their “low low prices”, the thought of having to park 1/4 mile from the store, hike in with a sherpa guide, and fight crowds in a 4 to 6 acre orgy of consumerism doesn’t inspire me to part with my dollars. However, the thought of being able to place a long detailed order in a website, pay for it, drive up and have a guy (or gal) in a blue smock load it in my trunk, that is enough for me to want to do business with them. I think the key term here is “long detailed order”. If this scheme is limited to a big things or a “few select items”, then the plan becomes gimmicky will not work. (In much the same way Wal-Mart has a gimmicky iPhone App that only does electronics.)

In some ways this harkens back to the days of local grocery/drygoods/hardware stores. I remember as a kid my grandmother calling up a small store near her house and placing an order. A little while later we would go into that store and the clerk/owner would reach behind the counter and pull out a brown paper bag with the stuff she had asked him for. While I think it would be creepy for Wal-Mart to have that same level of customer intimacy, the thought of picking up a bunch of groceries on the way home and not having to spend 45 minutes walking through the store is worth my dollars.

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