Walmart Just Explained the Future, and I Suddenly Realized What’s Been Missing

Have you been waiting for the long-rumored launch of Walmart’s new “Walmart+” membership or subscription retail product?

If so, this has been a summer of discontent. Walmart reportedly keeps delaying the start date, which means it still doesn’t have a direct subscription-based competitor to Amazon Prime.

The launch should be a good thing for consumers and small businesses, at least as long as Amazon and Walmart compete head to head, jockeying for products and consumers to sign up as subscribes.

But as Walmart CEO C. Douglas McMillon spoke on the company’s second quarter earnings call this week, I realized what might well have been missing from this whole discussion, and why Walmart+ hasn’t happened yet.

First, let’s set the stage with a very short recap. I’ve written recently with bemusement about the great counter-stampede going on between Amazon and Walmart, as Amazon rushes to expand its physical footprint, and Walmart works to expand its ecommerce offerings.

Of course, Amazon has a huge lead in online retail, while Walmart leads in traditional retail, just as consumers are heading toward a preference convergence that’s been accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

So, when it comes to Walmart+, the supposed Prime-killer (or at least, Prime-competitor), what’s taking Walmart so long? I mean, doesn’t everyone agree that a subscription-based digital business model is the best possible one?

Perhaps a few more months delay wouldn’t matter that much, since Amazon has a 15-year head start. Yet, all year, Walmart+’s launch date reportedly keeps getting pushed back: first because of the pandemic, but more recently because — well, I wasn’t sure why.

But this week, McMillon addressed the issue in the Walmart earnings call–sort of.

Here’s what he had to say:

There has been a lot of buzz recently about membership at Walmart. We’ve been testing membership with Delivery Unlimited subscriptions since late last year. That customer offer was limited to a grocery and consumables delivery service as the reason to sign up. Since that launch, we’ve proven to ourselves that we can pick and deliver a broad set of categories across the supercenter, not just food and consumables, but a wide assortment of general merchandise.

We think that assortment breadth and our ability to deliver with speed nationally, combined with a few other benefits for customers, will result in a compelling proposition. So, we’ve been moving towards a new membership launch. We’ll share more about that membership and timing when it’s appropriate.

First, at the very least, McMillion apparently wants no part of making news about any potential launch date. At this point, I think the only thing we can be sure of is that we’re not sure of anything. Saying you’ll share more information “when it’s appropriate” could mean, “never.”

Second, I wonder if we should we take anything from the fact that McMillon doesn’t actually use the name, “Walmart+”?

The “coming soon” page is still live on Walmart’s website, but the only person who used that name in the earnings call this week was an outside anaylst (nobody from Walmart itself).

And third–well, I think this is the part that small business owners should keep a close eye on.

Imagine if Walmart really were planning to put the the brakes on Walmart+, for reasons beyond the pandemic or some issue of a technical or marketing delay.

I started trying to think this through, and it might well have to do with a couple of key differences between Walmart and Amazon.

First, for Amazon, expanding its physical footprint (which doesn’t necessarily mean retail stores; it also means distribution centers) seems like it could only benefit its core online sales.

But, for Walmart, it’s a different story. The company has already spent years building a massive infrastructure of more than 5,000 Walmart stores and clubs, and an entire related business model, to the point that 90 percent of all Americans live within 10 miles of a Walmart.

That means online sales could present a threat to its own existing in-person sales (as well as perhaps drawing some away from Amazon, of course).

Second, Amazon has an advantage in that it has other highly profitable businesses like Amazon Web Services, that can more than make up for any short-term deficit (or even a long-term one) in retail.

So, as small business owners grow impatient for Walmart’s expanded digital efforts, we have to recognize that online is still a money-losing proposition for Walmart.

As McMillon put it in the same call, its losses are getting smaller, but they do still exist.

It’s tricky. Walmart clearly needs to move toward the convergence.

But, how do you manage that inevitability with the fact that at present, the move appears likely to lose money, and possibly even affect your long-standing, core business?

And really, are you in a hurry accelerate that convergence, if you don’t have to?

Among the saving graces is that Amazon itself would benefit from a healthy second-place online competitor in Walmart, especially as the words “antitrust” and “Amazon” get mentioned so often in the same sentence these days.

Bottom line: It’s more complicated than I think a lot of people expected.  

So, if you’re a small business owner who has been looking forward to this long-rumored day when Walmart will come out with a direct competitor to Amazon Prime, and you’ll reap some benefits, the good news is that it almost certainly will happen.

The bad news? You just might need to wait a bit longer.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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