December 06, 2000, 7:14 PM — THE WORLD'S LEADING BIG-BOX discount retailer has finally started to think big
thoughts about its website. Wal-Mart has unveiled a total revamp of its site -- the
first major online overhaul it has undertaken since it launched its e-commerce effort
in the summer of 1996. And hot on the heels of the Jan. 1 relaunch, the company has
announced a venture with a Silicon Valley VC firm to speed future development of the
An online store waiting three-and-a-half years to unveil a major site redesign is
kind of like a brick-and-mortar shopping mall waiting a few decades to install a food
court. During the past three years, nimble online retail pioneer Amazon.com has been
continually evolving its site, adding shopping categories from hardware to toys,
improving its shopping tools and increasing its customer base and revenues (if not its
profits, which remain nonexistent); brick-and-mortar retailers such as Macy's have also
been through several online design iterations. But Wal-Mart spokesperson Melissa
Berryhill defends the Bentonville, Ark.-based retail giant's slower pace. "We've been
more concerned about doing this right rather than doing it fast," Berryhill says.
Did Wal-Mart do it right? The new site offers roughly 600,000 products -- about six
times the number of products found in a typical Wal-Mart Supercenter. The site has
added several new product and service categories, including travel, photo, automotive,
pets and hobbies. Shopping tools include a gift finder, personal shopping list and
reminder calendar. Customers who shop online can return their merchandise in Wal-Mart's
stores, a convenience that will likely be much appreciated by shoppers who've struggled
with post-Christmas returns to dotcoms. And Wal-Mart is testing 60 web kiosks in its
stores to help introduce its current customer base to online shopping.
That's certainly an improvement from Wal-Mart's earlier web efforts. But according
to at least one analyst, the redesign still falls short in functionality and strategy.
The site's search tool "doesn't work at all," says Seema Williams, a senior analyst for
online retail at Forrester Research. And the site looks clunky, with a long list of
categories trailing down the lefthand side of the page. "They don't seem to have a
market-leading site, not even a market average site," says Williams. Strategically, Wal-
Mart has yet to use its massive brick-and-mortar presence to full online advantage.
Offering in-store pickup of items ordered online "would be an enormous edge, seriously
one-upping all the dotcom retailers," Williams says.