Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Strategic Planning: Why Wal-Mart is a bad place to buy books

A recent article on Yahoo Finance got me thinking about a fascinating strategic planning question: why is Wal-Mart is a great place to buy some things (such as video game consoles) and a terrible place to buy books?

Wal-Mart wants to turn over its merchandise quickly, and prices hot items (like the Nintendo Wii) to sell quickly. When it comes to books, there is a serious problem in this. Wal-Mart has been having a price war with Amazon over best-selling titles. Fortunately for Amazon, Wal-Mart has to do this, because Wal-Mart would never win a value war with Amazon. Amazon has invested huge amounts in having millions of titles available - arguably, a better selection of books than any other source on the planet. Wal-Mart - true to their commodity strategy - only wants to sell huge quantities of the best-selling books. This means that Wal-Mart, at best, might carry one thousand titles, compared to Amazon's millions. This brings us to the classic reason to buy - or not buy - from Wal-Mart. Want a cheap price on a New York Times bestseller? Wal-Mart will probably have it, and they will try to price it less than Amazon. This is still a challenge, since Wal-Mart is still largely a bricks-and-mortar operation, but their advanced distribution and purchasing power enables them to give Amazon a run for it's money.

But let's look at the flip side: Want any one of a million titles - say, a book about fossil hunting in Florida? Wal-Mart will never carry such a title, because the turnover rate would be too poor. In fact, there are thousands of books in a typical Borders or Barnes and Noble that Wal-Mart wouldn't want to carry because they don't have the volume demand that, say, the latest Twilight book would have. This approach might make little difference to readers who only buy a book or two to take to the beach in the summer - which is a valid, addressable market that Wal-Mart already caters to - but it makes buying books at Wal-Mart about the same as buying clothing at a convenience store. Sure, you might find what you are looking for, but you'll waste a lot less time going to a specialty retailer whose strategy is centered on giving you the selection you want. This is true whether you are talking about online sales or bricks-and-mortar sales: selection is both a cost and a consumer preference in the book market (and arguably, the fashion market and many others).

Wal-Mart can succeed by sacrificing the preference for selection because price is also a strong preference. For retailers like Amazon, however, the strategy of leaning into Wal-Mart's weakness (product selection) will always garner a sizeable chunk of market share. The challenge for even more specialty-oriented stores (small, independent booksellers, for example) is to provide other values that Amazon (or Waldenbooks) won't, such as personal service, focused selection, ambiance, and browsing configurations.

I'd go a step beyond this and say that people who buy books at Wal-Mart are also doing society a disservice, because civilization suffers when economic resources are diverted only to cultural production that sells in mass quantities, but that's a somewhat elitist viewpoint. Still, a culture that only supports best-sellers isn't just bland, it is systematically likely to sink to the lowest common denominator in literature. Call me a snob, but I'd prefer not to build a civilization on Harlequin romances.

How about your business? Are you like a Wal-Mart, an Amazon, or a small independent bookstore? How do you create value for your customers? Does your strategic planning give you the ability to out-serve your biggest competitors in a huge portion of your market?

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