By  on November 8, 2007

NEW YORK — Walmart.com's chief executive Raul Vazquez is bullish about apparel.

"I have high hopes for apparel," Vazquez said Wednesday. "We need to focus on basics like the stores. That's very low-hanging fruit for us. That's why I'm so optimistic about apparel. Apparel is a category that continues to grow online."

Basics may be a no-brainer for walmart.com, but Vazquez also aspires to selling fashionable fare. While Wal-Mart's forays into the fashionable zone have been met with decidedly mixed results, the Web site is willing to take style risks. Z.b.d. design, which is exclusive to the site, is a cohesive collection that gently interprets trends such as a short black cap-sleeve dress with fringe on the hem, at $29.88; a geometric print tunic reminiscent of Pucci, $18.88; a tweed cropped swing jacket, $29.98, and a baby-doll tank with jeweled neck, $16.88.

"Our role as walmart.com is to be innovative," Vazquez said, noting the Web site will add new proprietary apparel labels in the months ahead. "If the lines are successful, they will go to the stores."

Vazquez, a five-year veteran of walmart.com, was named ceo of the division in February and has beefed up his staff. However, Dottie Mattison, who was chief merchant of walmart.com, in July became senior vice president and general merchandise manager over women's apparel at Wal-Mart U.S. "We've had people from walmart.com go to the [stores division] and Sam's Club," Vazquez said. "That's by design. The company has a growing appreciation of the skill sets of people at walmart.com." John Fleming, Wal-Mart's chief merchant, is also an alumnus of walmart.com.

For the holiday season, walmart.com is offering items such as a George wool-blend peacoat in black-white, charcoal gray, black and red, for $54.94, and cashmere scarves, gloves and beanies for $14.88 to $19.88.

Vazquez said of the walmart.com audience, "We skew a little more female, slightly younger, slightly more affluent and with more education." The Web site offers 500,000 products, compared with 120,000 in stores, and the vast majority of the product does not overlap.

Walmart.com is also going after of-the-moment styles in jewelry with a chunky black onyx and sterling silver statement ring for $41.28; a diamond-studded sterling silver snake ring with black diamond eyes, $79.97; a black-and-white pavé diamond and white gold ring, $174, and a smoky quartz cocktail ring, $79.97."We continue to explore the higher end," he said. "If you want to have the most-visited site you have to work on your assortment. Jewelry is going to be big. We have to make sure we're capturing the trends."

Key Web initiatives include a site-to-store program, rolled out in July, which takes products available online and ships them to a customer's local Wal-Mart store. Shipping is free and consumers have saved $25 million to date, Vazquez said. The company found that 60 percent of those shoppers who use site-to-store to retrieve an online purchase spend an extra $60 in the store while there.

A reviews and ratings system went national in July. Vazquez said this was the number-one requested feature and 80,000 products have been reviewed to date. Returns and customer service issues have dropped since the program began. Finally, a "find in store" feature was added to the site to display the in-stock status of items common to walmart.com and the stores. That way a shopper can decide whether to buy a product online or make a trip to the store.

Walmart.com's sales have been growing at two to three times the online industry's growth rate, Vazquez said. "The industry is expected to grow 20 percent for the holiday season," he added. "We will grow 40 percent. We feel a lot of confidence going into the holidays."

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