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Walmart Introduces Smart Network

September 4, 2008

By Tom Ryan

In a live simulcast between New York City and Bentonville, Walmart executives on Wednesday unveiled Walmart Smart Network, described as the first "shopper-intelligent network at retail." Launched in front of hundreds of vendor executives at both locations, Walmart is hoping to galvanize the marketing community to fully support this emerging in-store media.

Developed after two years and $10 million of R&D with participation from leading advertisers, Smart Network consists of "Welcome Screens" for customers walking into the store; "Category Screens" delivering more-focused messages in the core departments (grocery, health & beauty and electronics); and "Endcap Screens" directly advertising items displayed in key endcap displays. Networks are rolling out in eight major markets this weekend with the majority of stores converted by November 2009.

Walmart execs stressed how "Smart Network" differs significantly from Wal-Mart TV Network, the original name for Walmart's web network of entertainment-infused programming that started in 1998. Wal-Mart TV broadcasts previews of soon-to-be-released movies, snippets of sports events and rock concerts and corporate messages.

By comparison, Walmart Smart Network is purely focused on providing shoppers with "relevant and useful information." The technology deploys response measurement and message optimization technologies "to enable delivery of the most relevant content to shoppers - by store, by screen, by day and by time-of-day."

For instance, the network can show promotions based on weather conditions. Soup may be promoted if it's raining outside the store, said Clint McClain, Walmart's senior director of emerging media. Ads may promote barbeque items if it's going to be eighty degrees on Saturday. Promotions might also be arranged around local events, such as a nearby college football game. The network also offers different items depending on the time of the day. For example, promoting frozen pizza at 5:00 p.m. has already proven to be a big winner with moms looking for an easy dinner for their kids. At 10:00 a.m., the ads showed no lift.

Mr. McClain likened this greater promotional flexibility to how "umbrella stores suddenly pop up" when it rains in New York City.

"We want that relevance in the store to have what you need when you need it," said Mr. McClain.

Although the messages are much more focused around driving purchases than Walmart's former TV Network, he stressed that messages are not overly employing hard-sell tactics. "If done right, they'll seem like a timely suggestion," Mr. McClain said.

Indeed, Stephen Quinn, chief marketing officer, Walmart Stores U.S., said the group developing the project made sure the network was "value-added" for consumers. "[Consumers] tell us they want more direction," said Mr. Quinn. To prevent the ads from being annoying, the length of the messages is purposely kept short and continually changed up. The sound around the messages is modulated and speakers are directed so only the person viewing is hearing the message.

"Do you know how I really know they're not annoying? Our associates haven't be been complaining," Mr. Quinn half-joked. "They would certainly complain if it was annoying."

For brands, the key advantage is being able to reach Walmart's more than 140 million weekly customers directly at "the moment of truth," according to Mr. Quinn. Brands can also easily measure the success of in-store initiatives. So far, brands participating in the programs in tests have received a boost of 20 percent to as much as 80 percent. But Mr. Quinn admits that the one hurdle to success is whether the marketing community - including brand managers, advertising agencies, and researchers - will embrace in-store as a major advertising medium. Likening in-store TV media's state to when television first was invented, he's looking for the quality of creative around in-store media to rise to where TV is currently.

"If we don't get the content, it won't be as special as it should be," said Mr. Quinn.

Discussion Questions: What do you think of Walmart's Smart Network? In particular, what do you think of its focus on providing shoppers with "relevant and useful information" compared to its past in-store network focus on entertainment and corporate messages?

FINANCIALS:     [NYSE:WMT]

Discussion Questions:

While we value unfettered opinion, we urge you to show respect and courtesy for people or companies about whom you comment. Keep in mind that this is a public, professional business discussion. RetailWire reserves the right to edit or refuse the publication of remarks that we deem unsuitable. We may also correct for unintended spelling and grammatical errors.

Instant Poll:

Do you expect Walmart's new Smart Network will be a major stimulus for the in-store media movement?

Comments:

Where to begin? Certainly this is one of the more significant announcements we have seen in the shopper media realm. It promises innovation in message content, message proximity, message timing and campaign metrics. It implies the existence of new, definitive consumer market research that finally seeks understanding of how shoppers confront shopper media and what they want and expect from it.

The use of small screens located at endcaps and on shelves is an indication that the Walmart Network folks grasp what I call the "inverse cube law" of in-store media--that is, sales lift declines with the cube of the distance between the message and the promoted product. (Kinda like what happens with gravity--look up Isaac Newton.)

The use of digital welcome screens at the front door may be compared with the mouth of the funnel. These may condition shoppers to look for other digital messages in the stores' interiors. Or maybe they will replace human greeters: "Welcome to Walmart, hu-man. Would you like a digitally-equipped buggy?"

Unlike yesterday's discussion about the new Infosys system, nothing is said about the use of automated tracking mechanisms to track shopper/viewer movement. Is shopper surveillance part of the grand scheme? Or has Walmart determined that the benefits would be outweighed by the privacy backlash?

It's a huge coming-out for DS-IQ, one of the pioneers in shopper media measurement. They really seem to get it, based on conversations I've had. And it could be a body blow to the PRISM in-store media metrics proponents, who had better step up the pace to keep up.

Finally, who is Studio2? No names offered. No findable web site. No listing in the Richmond, VA yellow pages. If you're out there, call me!

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James Tenser, Principal, VSN Strategies

It is time for the industry to really test and learn with a focus on the shopper. Supporting the effort with various types of content and messaging designed to inform, educate and motivate purchases is what we all make a living by doing as best we can. I applaud this effort in being first to market with a solution that provides enough feedback to allow marketers and agencies to make efficient decisions based on objectives within various parts of the store.

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Anne Howe, Senior Vice President, Shopper Solutions, part of Acosta Mosaic Group

I find it interesting that Walmart is hailing this as a breakthrough way to communicate with the consumer, and many of my colleagues are agreeing that Walmart is cutting edge. Aren't TVs hanging from a ceiling yesterday's news? Should a truly smart network take advantage of cell phone technology, or streaming video that can be viewed on an iPhone?

Imagine, through the use of GPS, when an iPhone user walks into a Walmart, and assuming permission has been previously granted, marketers are able to send videos about their products while the consumer is walking through the store. The videos would be targeted based on previously completed consumer profiles. At the end of the videos, special discounts are offered available only at Walmart, only at that particular store, and only that day. When the consumer brings their iPhone to the check-out register, they are able to show their coupons, and have bar codes on the iPhone screen scanned for discounts on their purchase.

That is a smart network, and that is worth writing about. What Walmart has introduced would be exciting if it was still 2003. But it is 2008. Walmart has the money and the capability to truly break the mold on in-store marketing, but they continue to play it safe.

Joel Warady, Chief Marketing Officer, Enjoy Life Foods

This can be a massive win, of course, depending on the execution. For sure, the size and deployment of the screens is appropriate and is the right way to communicate.

If Walmart is as tenacious with Smart Network as they were with the very ineffective Walmart TV, it's hard to see how they can fail. Can individual brands achieve sales lift nearly every time? Almost certainly. Will that lead to greater store sales and profits? As day follows night!

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Herb Sorensen, Ph.D., Scientific Advisor TNS Global Retail & Shopper, Shopper Scientist LLC

Walmart Smart Network will make money because the suppliers will pay. Will it reinforce the customer experience as a humiliating place to shop? Or will it improve the customer experience?

As that great retailer, Harry Nilsson sang:

Everybody's talking at me.
I don't hear a word they're saying....

Mark Lilien, Consultant, Retail Technology Group

This looks like a truly amazing concept. Done right, I can see this becoming a standard amongst many large chains of grocery and even department stores. Regarding Walmart, I wonder if any of the 10 million spent on R&D went towards improving customer service and making the lines at the checkouts shorter.

Marc Gordon, President, Fourword Marketing

I understand that this same strategy has been in the Canadian Walmart stores for over a year. I also understand it's not PRN driving that network or digital merchandising strategy. Does anyone know who it is, how it differs and how it's doing?

'digitaldiva'

It's a great way to reach consumers at the point of sale and at the same time, line Walmart's pockets with brand dollars. Like Scanner, I wonder if a brand will be able to get an end-cap without paying additional advertising dollars. Perhaps Walmart feels that whatever is good for WMT is good for consumers.

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Max Goldberg, President, Max Goldberg & Associates

Perfectly targeted marketing, completely "opt-in," delivered at the precise moment of purchase. What's not to like? In theory. How this actually plays out in terms of attracting viewer/shopper attention and meeting their needs remains to be seen. But I think there is anecdotal evidence that Walmart has this right.

Bass Pro Shops has run "informational videos" on small screens positioned on product displays for some time. Despite the fact that the patrons of the store are avid sportsmen (who typically watch hours of "outdoor TV" on cable at home) you don't see very many standing around watching these screens.

Contrast that with the findings from Tesco, shared by dunnhumby at this year's In-store Marketing Institute Summit. The upshot? That consumers respond much better to concise messages (10 - 15 seconds) that tell them "exactly what the deal is" so they can make a decision to purchase or not and move on. Shopping is generally not viewed as a pleasant task, and offering in-store entertainment doesn't seem to make it any less so.

So, if Walmart's Smart Network can succeed in offering "just the facts, ma'am" in a relevant location and unobtrusive way, this could be a real hit.

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Ben Ball, Senior Vice President, Dechert-Hampe

Walmart's Smart Network is a very useful concept if the store's size and other distractions allow for all the intent and purposes to convey effectively.

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David Biernbaum, Senior Marketing and Business Development Consultant, David Biernbaum Associates LLC

Three merchandising ideas will help this new media succeed when it is part of a category in the aisle.

One: include the planogram location of the product in the message. For example, "Look for Brand A on the bottom shelf." That way, shoppers can easily find the advertised product, particularly in SKU intensive categories. This will also help the media work better for any item in the category, not just the top sellers that are at eye level.

Two: make sure the advertised SKUs have enough holding power on the shelf. Perhaps "Flex Space for Video Ad item" needs to be planogrammed so extra stock can be carried at the shelf (not in the back room) without disrupting the facings of the rest of the category.

And three: make sure the video screen is planogrammed. As shown in the Walmart example, it will cover up a fair amount of eye level center-of-the-section space that normally is prime real estate for top selling products. So top sellers will need to be moved out from behind the video screen in the planogram and most likely, some SKUs may need to be deleted to make room for the screen and the extra holding power needed for ad items.

Dave King, Author, Selling with Space Management

Look at Walmart, stepping out once again. Bravo! I've been asked several times this week if the network won't increase "noise" in the stores and make for a distracting shopping environment. I think the opposite is true; with Walmart at the controls, and with the latest technology at their fingertips, Walmart can ensure consistency of message and appropriate volumes.

On the flip side, were Walmart to set its vendors loose to portray their version of "timely" and "appropriate," shoppers would most likely be assaulted by shelf talkers, coupon dispensers and flickering screens. Instead, Walmart has struck the perfect balance of maintaining control and encouraging participation ...and everyone else will benefit from the learnings that this mega-beta brings.

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Carol Spieckerman, President, newmarketbuilders

I agree with Herb Sorensen when he wrote: "This can be a massive win, of course, depending on the execution."

It's clear that this new screen network at Walmart is different--very different--from the old Walmart TV. Why do I say that?

• It's common knowledge that Saatchi & Saatchi X, Walmart's agency for in-store communication and employee communication, has been lobbying Walmart strongly for a new vision for the retailer's in-store screen medium.

• Because many of Saatchi X's key people are card-carrying Procter & Gamble alumni, we know that P&G's office in Bentonville has been hammering Walmart for years to build a modern in-store network that serves shoppers (and the brands, especially P&G's brands) better.

• Walmart is allowing its technology partner DS-IQ to execute on the full vision of DS-IQ's excellent sales-lift-analysis software. This is a first. The result: in-store digital media will finally realize its 21st Century potential to give consumers the product messaging they need at precisely the time and place where they need it. Plus, DS-IQ's technology will empower Walmart's marketing staff to spike bad content as fast as it can be cyber-booted.

• In the last few years, Walmart has beefed up its marketing staff. In so doing, these world-class retail marketers have taken up the challenge to clean up the stores, merchandise better, and educate Walmart shoppers more effectively about the zillions of SKUs that scream out from the shelves of the Supercenters. The Walmart Smart Network now gives these clever marketers a powerful new medium to retool consumers' shopping experience in Walmart's U.S. stores.

Bill Collins, Principal, DecisionPoint Media Insights

The aging population, many of whom patronize Walmart, may not be as enthusiastic about more digital noise in their shopping space. Younger shoppers may barely notice (oh, one more screen).

The question in my mind is, who will they target? The Millennial? The Mature? A Latina mom? it seems to me that this is step one; step two is to have the screens identify shoppers as they walk past. Must be further capability in those machines. Take it another step--scan checkout at screen locations.

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Liz Crawford, VP, Strategy & Insights, Match Drive

Relevance is in the mind of the receiver--in this case the customer--not the vendor marketing community, Walmart execs or even the store employees. This should be better in terms of effectiveness than TV (at least for some of the vendors) for some categories due to its context and proximity to purchase though. That said, content is more than advertising, even in "soft-sell" form.

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Phil Rubin, CEO, rDialogue

It's certainly a way to capture vendor dollars besides slotting fees and it makes me wonder whether or not things that don't get on the network will get to the shelves as easily as those that do.

It certainly seems to be a frivolous waste of time, effort and most importantly money. I thought they were smarter. In fact, they may be. I tend to think that there's more to it than being 'relevant' to the customer. Knowing that sounds cynical, I still question the good sense of the venture, which really means there has to be more to it.

'Scanner'

Retail will adopt screens on a fits-and-starts basis. When screens are common, which will be sooner than others might predict, we'll all wonder why stores have been a screen-free zone.

We'll also go beyond screens-as-signs. Within 12 months consumers will be able to purchase mobile phones which can store coupons and accept personalized offers. Combined with smart screens in stores, we'll see a dramatic shift in the way that products are pitched and it's entirely possible that new, unforseen applications will become dominant over time.

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Cathy Hotka, Principal, Cathy Hotka & Associates

I guess this is the "smarter shelf talker" I mentioned in response to the INFOSYS targeted marketing technology discussed earlier this week. This is the "keep it simple" approach.

That is the thing that is so interesting about Walmart...it is not just the technology, but the whole low-priced merchandising image that allows them to work without specific shopper identity.

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Bill Bittner, Principal, BWH Consulting

I may be a little old fashioned but for me a shopping experience is finding what I want and getting out of the store. Why doesn't Walmart work on these two areas before launching an in store advertising network. It has been my experience that "advertisng programs" are a code word for sticking it to your vendors. I hope this isn't the case! Back to my original premise. Can Walmart do anything about out of stocks and long lines? Well they have put self checkout aisles in their stores and this should help but I find they are often clogged up by consumers who cannot read/follow the instructions and end up having to have a "highly trained" associate come over and do the check out for them. With regard to OOS product, I believe Walmart has invested millions in a system designed to cure the OOS problem. Well they wasted some of those millions because OOS are still a huge problem. I actually think they could show a 10% revenue increase if they could cut their OOS in half. I sure hope that the same thought and insight did not go into this "Smart Network". Let us hope that Walmart is doing something consumer oriented here and not instituting a supplier shake down program.

Ed Dennis, president, Dennis Enterprises

This has always been the potential identified for in-store advertising. Day-part and category segmentation, and having the flexibility to respond to conditions so that ads are always served in the appropriate context. The challenge has been exactly the one identified at the end of the article: without the content, this is just a lot more screens in the store.

TV ads are sexy, but it's time for the store to take center stage.

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Nikki Baird, Managing Partner, RSR Research

Several issues are at play here and I'd wager that the Walmart folks are on top of them. Examples: Does this really help simplify the shopping event or add to the confusion? Who defines "relevant"? How does Walmart control any content, for that matter? And the biggie: How many people does this alienate?

Let's face it, most manufacturer promotions are intended to drive sales based on corporate targets and cycles, not store area weather patterns. This could be exciting stuff, if enough time is taken to study all the implications up and down the supply chain.

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Dan Raftery, President, Raftery Resource Network Inc.

Smart and very effective. This is a very clever idea for the consumer and it ensures that the endless marketing noise is value added. If it does what Walmart says it will do, then they have a real winner on their hands and other chains will be quick to pick up on the concept, and roll it out in their own stores.

It offers endless possibilities, not only for national campaigns but also for regional and store specific promotions.

Mark Patten, Consultant, Retail Matters

This is just the beginning and the potential is huge. Digital signage and kiosks are there to assist the selling process. Put them to work.

'retailveteran'

I may be a little late with the comment, but I have been involved with in-store media and have seen much research. The key is in fact "relevant information." I define that by two things, (1) prompting the shopper to buy items not on the list, and (2) telling the shopper that there is a special price on something they want. It worked 15 years ago and it will work even better now.

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Gene Detroyer, Professor, Independent

Hmmm.... All those video screens seem like a waste of time and space. Everyone I know and see in stores never gives any kind of video screen any of their attention. I don't think I've ever seen someone stand in front of one to watch or listen to one.

Personally, I find those electronic screens annoying.

'CPGman'

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