Walmart's half-assed attempts at online retailing are not causing Jeff Bezos to lose any sleep.
I tried to order something from Walmart the other day and realized why the low price, always, sometimes pales in comparison to basic good service.
We were trying to find a mud flap for our truck to prevent gravel from scratching a new camper. We had one on our old truck and is basically it was a big long piece of rubber that attaches to a piece of angle iron which bolted to the hitch receiver. That way, you could take the thing off when you weren't towing the trailer, but when it was on, it went all the way across the back of the truck. Some people call these Montana mud flaps. I'm sure in Texas they probably called them a Texas mud flap.
We first attempted to buy them at Camping World, which has now merged with Gander Mountain. They also are the largest RV dealer, and own Trailer Life Magazine, Motorhome magazine, the Good Sam Club, Woodall's Guide, and so on and so forth. The only they don't own is KOA. So much for anti-trust! Camping World used to have a display of these type of things in their store, but lately they've sort of changed their product focus to more junkie plastic pieces that are used to hold your cups and saucers and stack your paper plates. They have kind of gotten away from serious hardware for recreational vehicles but instead concentrating on flashy junk made in China that can be sold at a huge markup.
And their prices are nothing to write home about. We saw a small portable ice maker for sale for $145 on sale which seemed like a really good price until we saw the same thing at Home Depot - of all places - for $89. Not that we needed or wanted one, when you can buy ice bags for a few pennies and make your own ice in the freezer of the RV. Not only is a selection of goods lousy at Camping World, their prices are stratospheric. Tellingly, we stopped buying things there are several years ago and really haven't bought anything in the last 5 to 10 years.
We asked one of the associates if they had mud flaps that bolt into a load receiver. Now, maybe those of you working retail can explain this to me, but it is something that has happened to me several times on this trip and many times in the past. I went up to the associate and asked, "Do you have mud flaps?" He paused and said, "Mud flaps? Mud flaps? What do you mean mud flaps?" as if he'd never heard of a mud flap before. I started to explain to him and he went. "Oh yes, mud flaps of course! We don't carry those in stock anymore!"
I've run into the same phenomena in many stores. For example you go into some sort of gourmet food store and ask if they have olive tapenade. The associate looks at you as if you were speaking Martian and says, "Olive tapenade? Olive tapenade? Oh! You mean olive tapenade - that's in aisle three." Why do retail Associates play this game where they pretend they don't understand what the heck you're saying when they understand exactly what it is you're saying, and they carry the product. I think it's just some sort of sick game that bored retail associates play on the customers because they really don't like to answer customer questions. Go to Home Depot sometime and try to track down an associate and ask them what aisle the galvanized nails are in, and they will literally run away from you.
But getting back to Camping World and mud flaps, one associate suggests we try the parts department. Again with the sarcasm. I went to the parts department and they opined that these things could be ordered, but there would be excessive shipping costs. I asked if any nearby stores had them and he ran down a list of stores from New Jersey to Texas which are more than 3,000 miles away. And the way he said it was sort of smarmy and smirking. It wasn't like he wanted to sell me this $250 product or go out of his way to try to order it for me. Rather he seemed to relish belittling me for even asking whether such a thing was available. So much for brick and mortar.
We searched online and found a very attractive mudflap on the Walmart website. So we went off to Walmart to see if they had it in stock, which of course they didn't. Since we're traveling, it's very hard to have things shipped to us but we thought since we're going to be here for several days maybe it could be shipped to the store. I ask an associate about shipping to the store and they directed me to the big orange square in the front, with nobody in it other than some bored associate.
I asked him how I could order the product and have it shipped to the store, and he just stared at me blankly. He said he couldn't do customer orders, but that I'd have to order it myself. All he was in charge of was giving products to people from little lockers in the ship-to-store area. He was clearly bored out of his mind, as nobody was picking up things at this ship-to-store location and it was a huge waste of square footage for the Walmart. The one at our local store has chairs, which seniors use to sit in while waiting for the senior bus. This one, tellingly, had the chairs removed and replaced with little lockers. No one was using it.
I showed him the product on the phone and he scrolled down and pointed out that it said "pick up not available." I was confused by this because in the store lingo they call it "ship to store," but on the website they call it "pick up." And I assumed that these were two different things but I was wrong. It was unclear to me why this could not be shipped to the store as the item was sold by and shipped by Walmart and not by some third-party. But for some reason Walmart has arbitrary rules as what could be shipped to store and what could be shipped directly to your home.
So, I figured I'd just order it and have it shipped to the campground we are in. Well, the Walmart online ordering system is a little clunky to say the least. It kept trying to insert my home address no matter how many times I erased it. I kept trying to enter a new address and it kept coughing up my old address into the new address form. The system was also pretty flaky and crashed several times. When I try to load the Walmart app to view the items in my cart, it would say "cart unavailable right now." I had to go back to Google Chrome and load the Walmart website in order to view the cart and purchase the item.
Unlike Amazon, there was only one choice for shipping and since the item would arrive a day after we left the campground, we decided not to order. The price is very attractive - under $100 - but the ordering process less left us with a lot less than 100% confidence that we would ever receive the item in a timely manner. Maybe we will order it when we get home, maybe not. We might decide by then, we didn't really need it.
We visited a local truck accessory store and they had a lot of inventory of parts, mostly covered with dust. Again, with brick-and-mortar these days it depends on what they have in inventory not what you want to get. In the old days, retailers who carry a lot larger inventory in order to make a sale. Today, it's all about special-ordering what the customer wants, which sort of negates the whole point of brick and mortar. I can order things online with a click of a mouse, so why would I go to a brick-and-mortar store?
He did have one item in stock which kind of sort of would have fit, but was well over $200. I took a pass for now.
I checked on Amazon, but unlike Walmart Amazon doesn't have the low price, always. They had a lot of upscale models which were well over $200 some even three or four hundred dollars or more which struck me as a lot of money for a mud flap.
The upshot was we decided that not consuming was the best option. We ordered the trailer with a special cargo box on the front, which is treated with a textured finish to resist rock chipping. So maybe the mud flaps are not necessary.
But it was interesting to me, was the difference in the ordering procedures and inventories of the various stores we visited online, and in person. It seems that more and more, the brick-and-mortar stores are carrying less and less inventory and relying on ordering to suit customers tastes. This means that if you want something right away, going to a brick-and-mortar store isn't going to satisfy your needs, which further decreases the raison d'etre of a brick-and-mortar outfit. When you have to order online from brick-and-mortar store why not just order online through your cell phone?
It also strikes me that Walmart's attempt to merge online ordering with ship-to-store delivery is not working out very well. At every Walmart I've seen there's been this ship-to-store pickup area and nobody in it, other than seniors waiting for the senior bus, taking advantage of the comfortable chairs. Although, as I noted, in the most recent Walmart they removed the chairs apparently to boot the seniors out.
I mentioned before that Lowe's started to get into this folly as well. They put a folding table out front with big sign saying "Order Pick-Up" and a bored lady standing there doing absolutely nothing all day long. A friend of mine ordered some things (lumber, cinder blocks, etc.) for pick up and we went there - and she professed total ignorance of his order. She directed us to the contractor desk. We went to the contractor desk and found no help. We wandered around the store for an hour and finally found his order pushed into a corner with half the pieces missing. They apologized for the error and agreed to deliver it to his house for free the next day which negated entire point of the order pick-up. They know how to deliver, but for some reason, pickups bamboozle them.
The only advantage to brick-and-mortar stores is that they have things in stock. And this is where brick-and-mortar is falling down. We tried to find some other parts for the trailer at local stores, but they no longer stock things. Worse yet, you go online to search for a part, and the website says the local store has it in stock. You click on the link, only to find a lame "ship to store" offer instead. We tried to find wheel locks for the trailer - it came with aluminum wheels, even the spare! A simple thing that auto parts stores used to stock - in racks. Today, it is an "I can order that for you" thing, which is nice and all, but I can order things, too. And since I am traveling, it is hard to ship things to a campground I will be in for one or two nights.
So with Walmart, or Autozone, or NAPA, or whatever, you search "this store only" and get a roster of hits - but all of them, when clicked on, are not items in stock, but merely "ship to store" offers. Worse yet, you do find something in stock, they claim, only to go to the store and find their inventory control system is so out of whack - they stopped carrying the product line two years ago. Their only advantage over ordering online - and they blew it.
So what does that leave for brick-and-mortar? Impulse shopping. For the camper, we needed a lot of things like stick-on hooks and towel bars and drawer organizers. So Mark says, "Hey, there's a Bed, Bath, and Beyond! Did you bring my coupons?" No, I did not bring BB&B coupons with me. We go into the store and Mark picks up a few things while I search online on how to download a coupon. You can sign up, and the coupons will be delivered in 48 hours or so. It makes a difference because BB&B has insane coupons and pricing - $20 off a $10 purchase (just kidding) - but pretty close to that. Anyone who buys anything at BB&B without a coupon is just an idiot. So we put the things on a shelf and leave - and find the exact same merchandise at Walmart for less money, even with the "coupins" taken into account. Always the low price, always, beats some convoluted "coupon" deal.
BB&B isn't a place you go to buy specific things. It is a place that compulsive shoppers go to get their "fix" of impulse shopping. The whole store is piled high with crap you don't need. Oh sure, there is a shower curtain here or a sheet there, but nobody buys those. Instead, it is the place you go to buy the "as seen on TV!" robotic toilet bowl cleaner. Wait, that's a great invention. I claim Patent to that!
In other words this whole idea that you can somehow leverage brick-and-mortar to improve the online experience is just utter bullshit. Both Walmart and Lowe's are bound to find out the hard way that they're spending an awful lot of money for a service that nobody uses and if they try to use it , it simply won't work. Similarly, other stores such as West Marine, Home Depot, Camping World and the like, are going to find that having brick-and-mortar presence without inventory is going to negate the whole point of the brick-and-mortar experience. When everybody has to order everything online because you don't care anything in stock other than demonstration items, no one's going to bother coming to your store.
Well, they will come to your store, to examine the demonstration items. Then, they will pull out their phones, find the same thing for cheaper online, and order it before they are back in their car.
And maybe that's why Amazon has higher prices on most of their items. They can afford to charge higher prices because they're providing better service. If you're looking for a left-handed widget and you want it within a day or two, you're going to go to Amazon because you trust them to deliver the goods. You're not going to go to some half-ass brick-and-mortar online home delivery ship-to-store nightmare where your order is going to be found in a shopping cart pushed into a dusty corner of the layaway department by some low-wage employee just doesn't give a shit. And yes, that actually happened to me when I ordered a spare tire for a friend's camper. Ship to store, and then a treasure hunt for nearly an hour to find it. Some fun. Tire Rack ships to your house. So does Amazon.
Like I said, I don't think Jeff Bezos is losing any sleep over Walmart's online "experience." In the meantime, if you want the brick-and-mortar experience, well, it simply doesn't exist anymore, because executives are panicking and cutting back on actual inventory in favor of half-assed and poorly executed online experiences. The net result is, not only is brick-and-mortar dying, it is dying of a self-inflicted wound. They are so afraid of Bezos, they decided to end it all and shoot themselves in the head, apparently.