LAS VEGAS – As they took turns on a stage addressing thousands of industry leaders last week, top executives from Wal-Mart and Target Corp. offered different road maps of how to survive — and thrive — in the fast-changing retail landscape.
Target Chief Executive Brian Cornell told the audience he is doubling down on stores, envisioning them as “shoppable distribution centers” where people can come in and browse core products such as apparel and accessories or grab an online order and some food to go.
About 20 minutes later, Marc Lore, Wal-Mart’s e-commerce chief, described a company making big investments in online as it looks to take on Amazon.com directly.
As Target is pulling back on some big-thinking Silicon Valley projects — a much-buzzed-about topic of conversation at the conference — Wal-Mart announced it is opening an incubator there for start-ups looking to disrupt the future of retail.
Time will tell which strategy will pay off. But the stakes are high.
Last week, household names such as Sears and Payless ShoeSource joined the growing list of retailers on a death watch as many in the old guard continue to struggle to keep up with online shopping and other changes in consumer behavior. News of their impending struggles hung over the Shoptalk digital retail conference with Silicon Valley-funded start-ups touting artificial intelligence and augmented reality as other solutions to help revitalize and modernize the industry.
To be sure, both Minneapolis-based Target and Wal-Mart have devoted considerable resources to both their stores and online operations.
Wal-Mart has been spiffing up its stores and investing in increased wages and training academies for its front-line workers. Target has hired hundreds of engineers in the last couple of years to stabilize and upgrade its website and has seen significant online growth, helping to make up for falling foot traffic. A spokeswoman said the retailer continues to focus on improving the mix and appeal of the website.
“Both are following a similar trajectory in understanding that omnichannel (a mixture of stores and digital) is the way forward,” said Michelle Grant, head of retailing for Euromonitor. “But Wal-Mart is making a bigger bet on dominating the e-commerce market” while Target is focused on integrating stores into its digital strategy.
Lore said at an industry event during the conference that his mandate is “to crush the U.S.” When asked if that meant being No. 2 [to Amazon], Lore, a former Amazonian, didn’t blink: “Win means win.”
Wal-Mart brought Lore in about six months ago to run its e-commerce operations in the United States after also buying his online retail start-up, Jet.com, for $3 billion. Since then, Lore has been integrating his Jet.com staff with that of Walmart.com so there’s one category manager in charge of both websites.
“It’s incredibly challenging for a company to sort of hand over the keys to a start-up,” he said from the Shoptalk stage. Wal-Mart CEO Doug McMillon “and the board made a big move in empowering me and the team to basically run all of Wal-Mart’s e-commerce business. That really got us fired up. We sort of carried that on with the acquisitions we’ve done.”
Under his leadership, Wal-Mart has snapped up three hip online retail companies in the last several months — outdoors retailer Moosejaw, footwear company Shoebuy, and most recently apparel retailer ModCloth. The CEOs of those companies are now being charged with not only running their own businesses but, for example, the entire shoe category for Walmart.com and Jet.com.
Lore acknowledged it can be challenging for a publicly traded company to invest beyond the next couple years out. But with Store No. 8, the just-announced incubator, he’s hoping to do just that by bringing in top entrepreneurs and giving them a budget to build start-ups looking out five to 10 years down the road.
“So there’s not a focus on just today,” he said. “They can actually think bigger.”
What’s happening at Target
That’s in contrast to Target, whose sales have been on the slide and recently began reining in some of its further-looking innovation projects such as an internal start-up called Goldfish and a store-of-the-future concept that was killed weeks before it was set to open in Silicon Valley.
“There are some great new things we’ll continue to evaluate,” Cornell said at Shoptalk. “We’ll look around corners. But I want to make sure the innovation investments we’re making are going to impact our business over the next two or three years.”
For now, as Target looks to return to positive sales, a big part of the next two or three years will be focused on improving its supply chain, launching a dozen new brands and remodeling and opening new stores.
The majority of shopping will continue to be done in stores for the foreseeable future, Cornell said. And Target sees stores as a key to digital growth since they already fill about 55 percent of online orders through in-store pickup or ship-from-store capabilities.
By leveraging its network of 1,800 stores, Target can get items to customers faster and spend less in shipping costs, he said. And when people come by the store to pick up their orders, it brings them to the store where they might buy other items.
“In this new era of retail, stores need to be multidimensional showrooms — they have to be destinations for services, and more and more we’re positioning ours to function as guest-facing hubs in a smart network,” he said. “Think of a Target store of the future as being a hyper local, shoppable distribution center.”
That’s why Target plans to remodel about 600, or about a third, of its stores in the next three years. The idea is to turn its stores into places of inspiration.
He didn’t name any names, but said the retailers that deferred investments in their stores are those that are struggling today.
Target’s new store prototype has two separate entrances, Cornell said, one meant to inspire with home and apparel displays while the other aimed at convenience with groceries and beverages moved to the front and an online order pickup area nearby.
“Our guests like to shop,” he said. “Our guests love that sense of discovery. They expect an elevated experience. So we need to create an environment that is worthy of their time.”