Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is hoping it can take a Jet to close the gap with Amazon — and it’s spending big to do it.
The retailer on Monday confirmed the $3.3 billion acquisition of Jet.com, a move that was generally applauded by industry analysts and observers even though none of them believe Wal-Mart will ever completely catch Amazon. Instead, they expect Wal-Mart to use the fast-growing Jet to simply grab more of the online retail market and to attract higher-income consumers.
“I think we’ve got some cool ideas on how the two brands can work over time,” said Doug McMillon, president and chief executive officer of Wal-Mart, in a conference call with Wall Street analysts. “Marc [Lore, Jet’s ceo and cofounder] has focused Jet.com [on] higher income shoppers than the mean of walmart.com consumers. That’s not to say that we don’t have a lot of Millennials, but Jet has been able to attract brands we don’t have at walmart.com.…We’ll keep the spirit of the brands independent and leverage some things on the back-end. The essence of brands will continue to be different over time.”
McMillon said during the call that plans to leverage Jet’s talent and combine it with Wal-Mart’s @Walmart Labs technology arm in Silicon Valley. “I’m excited about Marc’s leadership and after the deal closes, it would be our intention that Marc lead both the Jet brand as well as the Wal-Mart brand here in the U.S. from an e-commerce point of view,” he said.
McMillon also confirmed that Neil Ashe, president and ceo of e-commerce and global technology, will be leaving Wal-Mart. “Neil has done an outstanding job during the years that he’s been building and running this business,” McMillon said. “I’m really thankful for the progress he’s enabled us to make: becoming the second-most trafficked site in the country, more tha doubling our gross merchandise value, getting our fulfillment centers in place and re-platforming walmart.com. Those are just some of the accomplishments that Neil and his team delivered. Neil and I have been talking about the fact that this is a natural inflection point for a leadership change, and how it really points us towards the future.”
The job that Lore will ultimately end up doing will be “different in some ways than the job we were asking Neil Ashe to do,” McMillon said. “It will be more focused on U.S. e-commerce, and that feels like the right decision for us to make at this time.” The ceo declined to disclose what Lore’s compensation will be and said Wal-Mart would provide updated guidance at a later date.
Earlier in the day, McMillon said the company continues to look for ways to lower prices, broaden its assortment and offer the simplest, easiest shopping experience because “that’s what our customers want, and we believe the acquisition of Jet accelerates our progress across these priorities.”
Although it is not yet profitable, Jet has grown quickly as an online retailer, reaching $1 billion in gross merchandise value in the first year. The site adds 40,000 new shoppers each month and averages 25,000 orders a day.
In response to a question from a retail analyst about profitability, McMillon said that Wal-Mart will be able to help Jet reach profitability sooner than it would have otherwise “because of our cost of goods structure and help with fulfillment rates and some other things. As Jet scales, it will have resources available to it that it didn’t have before.”
McMillon indicated that he’s not going to rush the process of integrating Jet. “This is about winning, and it’s about winning over time, but it’s not about winning in the short-term in a different way than we have already planned,” he said.
While walmart.com is remaining focused on its low price strategy, Jet will present a curated assortment. One aspect of Jet.com that Wal-Mart finds especially compelling is its smart basket technology designed to scale up savings as consumers build their baskets.
“It works and is aligned from a culture and business proposition and point of view with Wal-Mart’s Every Day Low Price, which is our core customer proposition,” said a Wal-Mart spokesman.”That position they have, which is unique and differentiated, of a curated assortment, that’s going to stay the same.”
McMillon said Jet puts the customer “even more in charge of the price that they pay. As they make decisions about building their own basket, about which form of payment they choose and whether they want a return privilege on an item, they’re really empowered.”
Jet.com indexes well with urban and Millennial customers, two cohorts that Wal-Mart could use help cultivating. Telsey Advisory Group’s Joseph Feldman noted that Jet’s customers are generally more affluent, are comfortable in a digital world and tend to spend more money online. “The acquisition should help Wal-Mart to gain market share and close the gap with Amazon,” he said.
It’s a pretty big gap. According to digital market intelligence firm SimilarWeb, during the first half of 2016, Amazon.com had 1.6 billion U.S. visits, compared with 240.5 million for Wal-Mart and 23.1 million for Jet.com.
Moody’s lead retail analyst Charlie O’Shea noted that the deal is a good one for Wal-Mart and explained that while beating Amazon can be a goal, it can’t be the expectation. “No one is going to catch Amazon. The expectation for Wal-Mart is to be the second click. If I am on Amazon, and wonder where else do I go afterward, it’s that second slot that Wal-Mart wants to be because the next time the customer wants an item, maybe it goes to Wal-Mart first.”
Stephan Schambach, founder of e-commerce platform Demandware and NewStore, said, “Jet.com has been very clever. From the company’s inception, it figured out Amazon’s weaknesses and strategically aligned themselves to compete so they would be the latest shiny new company to a giant like Wal-Mart. Their nimble, highly computerized process competes squarely with Amazon’s Dash button. Jet.com is essentially giving Wal-Mart the ability to now grab a bigger piece of the e-commerce pie — a piece that should have always been theirs.”
Ratings agency Standard & Poor’s said the transaction is well within Wal-Mart’s financial resources and has no impact on its credit ratings. It also said the “acquisition has the potential to accelerate Wal-Mart’s e-commerce growth and enhance capabilities to compete more effectively against Amazon.com through Jet.com’s pricing algorithms and unique fulfillment approach.”
Lore will remain with the Jet business and join Wal-Mart. Cowen & Co.’s John Blackledge said Jet.com, founded in 2014, operates three warehouses and is projecting $1 billion in gross merchandise volume for 2016. He also noted that the discounter reportedly has been eyeing adding Lore to its ranks since he was at the last company he founded, Diapers.com, a part of Quidsi, which also owned Soap.com and Wag.com. The sites were acquired by Amazon.
“Marc is going to take over e-commerce for a couple of years,” said one analyst, who requested anonymity. “I think the buzz is getting to a roar on that. There are indications that the Jet.com acquisition is about jolting Wal-Mart into the next phase of growth of e-commerce instead of just calmly building it. From a talent perspective, and a platform and technology and algorithm perspective, you can’t necessarily have the old leadership guiding a promising new vision.”
“We made it clear that we would move with speed,” said a Wal-Mart spokesman. “This acquisition is within the strategy and design of Doug’s idea.”
In terms of any integration of brands, the spokesman said, “That will be one of the priorities we’ll dig into, questions around the integration and how they’ll work together. Walmart.com has something like one million stockkeeping units and Jet.com has 12 million, so undoubtedly there will be some overlap. How that shakes out and what travels back and forth remains to be seen.
“Clicking up at a higher level, there will still be two distinct digital brands,” he added. “One important thing, from where Wal-Mart sits, we’ve been making these foundational investments not only in building the online site, but building an ecosystem and encouraging the customer to shops online and in stores. Ultimately, at the end of the day, we want to create technology-enabled relationships with customers. That’s at the heart of what Doug wants to achieve.”
Carol Spieckerman, president of Spieckerman Retail, pointed out that Wal-Mart’s deal with Jet.com is about more than simply acquiring capabilities. “What do they get from this acquisition? They are literally getting talent with Jet.com ceo Marc Lore and cofounders Mike Manrahan and Nate Faust, who will join Wal-Mart.
“They’re going to put Marc in a leadership position,” Spieckerman said. “Wal-Mart deserves credit in being bold in that regard, rather than saying, ‘We just want the platform.’ Marc is a successful entrepreneur. He launched Quidsi and diapers.com, which were acquired by Amazon. They just added them to their platform. What Amazon was really doing was, ‘If you can’t beat them, buy them.'”
Wal-Mart doesn’t view Jet.com as a competitor, Spieckerman said. “There’s shared strengths and they’re [Wal-Mart] getting the talent. The concentrated power of all that warrants the payout and the timing is great as well.
“[Lore] has a history of creating really compelling digital commerce platforms,” Spieckerman added. “Wal-Mart and Jet.com are both known for driving scale, Wal-Mart, through a brick-and-mortar model, and Jet.com is a scale-based digital player. Talk about synergies, the two companies are philosophically aligned. The dot-com culture veers off the traditional Wal-Mart culture. With Marc coming into the organization, that has the potential to evolve a little bit more.”
Lore has publicly said that Amazon’s super-aggressive, take-no-prisoners sensibility doesn’t appeal to him. “He could make Wal-Mart a little more warm and fuzzy,” Spieckerman said. “It could equate to better retention of digital talent, and it’s a war out there. That’s still another aspect of the acquisition. Marc could attract talent.”
KeyBanc Capital Markets managing director Ed Yruma said Lore will be central to Wal-Mart’s e-commerce operation, and that the discounter is expected to “work very aggressively to retain key leadership and technologists at Jet.com.”
But Ried Niziak at research firm L2 noted, “Lore has proven himself as someone who can dramatically scale up an e-commerce site’s revenue, but managing a more mature and conservative business that answers to [Wall Street] is a new frontier for him.”
Despite mostly positive reaction to the deal, there were a few skeptics. Forrester analyst Sucharita Mulpuru-Kodali said she is “baffled” on why they aren’t merging brands. “The prize here for Wal-Mart is that they now have a team in Jet that could, if channeled properly, drive $100 billion in online revenue for Wal-Mart and be a viable web competitor to Amazon. The question is, ‘What were the incentives within the deal that could drive that?'”
Dianne Innis, customer experience and innovation strategist at ThoughtWorks Retail, said, “Amazon has been moving away from price as a differentiator in favor of seamless convenience and deeper integration of its products and services into customers’ lives. While Wal-Mart will acquire some interesting pricing technology and the e-commerce capabilities that it has struggled to develop, this investment won’t be a game changer in the battle against Amazon, which still accounts for half of all e-commerce growth.”
Shares of Wal-Mart on Monday fell 0.6 percent to close at $73.34 in Big Board trading.