After a couple of years of news stories trumpeting the success of Wal-Mart (again), sales at Wal-Mart stores showed a decline last year. Why? There are two very different reasons. The first is economic, the second is competitive. The economic reason is that all shoppers shift spending downward when they see themselves affected by an economic downturn. This means people who shop at higher-end stores when times are good may stay pinching pennies by making the same purchases at a commodity store like Wal-Mart when things get tight. The competitive reason is that some of Wal-Mart's closest competitors - notably the dollar stores like Family Dollar and Dollar Tree - have started to close the gap on some of the weaknesses that caused customers to shift away from them and towards Wal-Mart. The first shift isn't really big news - commodity players always fare better when the economy is doing badly, and worse when things brighten up. But the second shift should be worrying to the folks at Wal-Mart. The commodity game, unlike a specialty strategy, allows only one winner. Any change that reduces volume for the lead player makes it that much more likely that an upstart will be able to remove the commodity crown from the top dog. Wal-Mart has undertaken some big expenses in the past few years that their smaller competitors have not - notably advertising and opening/closing stores. These are both strategic moves, and properly done may lead to higher profit at Wal-Mart - BUT improperly done, these moves may just be another chink in Wal-Mart's armor.
While I'm not a big fan of commodity strategies in general, so much has been made of Wal-Mart's management approach that I will find future developments in this market space very interesting to watch.
Here is a question for you in your strategic planning: Are YOU staying on top of your game? Are you considering pursuit of strategic moves that may create chinks in your armor? And how are you preparing yourself for a better 2011 and beyond?