That was the question explored last week on RetailWire.com, the retail online discussion site, following the launch of Walmart’s Premium Outdoor Store and the consequent revolt after a number of outdoor vendors pulled their product from the site under pressure from outdoor retailers.
On August 27, Walmart’s Premium Outdoor Store microsite launched with nearly 50 well-known outdoor brands. Walmart promised those brands greater reach to “exponentially more customers” and even help those companies introduce the outdoors to underrepresented groups.
By September 7, Eoin Comerford, general manager of Outdoor, Walmart U.S. e-commerce and CEO of Moosejaw, was telling the Wall Street Journal that a third of those brands had left the site over concerns about selling on Walmart.com.
The team at Moosejaw, the outdoor e-tailer acquired by Walmart in early 2017, is responsible for managing the site and Moosejaw’s relationships helped many vendors sign on.
“I wasn’t naive enough to think that all outdoor retailers would welcome the Premium Outdoor Store with open arms, but I am surprised by the vehemence of the attacks by some of our industry’s leading retailers and the threats to drop brands that participated,” Comerford wrote on September 7 on LinkedIn in an open letter to the outdoor industry.
Comerford credited April’s relaunch of Walmart.com — including a more image-driven versus-transactional look — for making Moosejaw’s vendors comfortable selling directly on the site. But Outside Magazine said some vendors felt the upgrades weren’t as advanced as promised.
The bigger concern is that, following the launch, some owners of outdoor specialty stores threatened to put holds on orders of any vendor selling through Walmart.com. The Grassroots Outdoor Alliance called on its members put all orders on hold from brands involved.
For their part, stores are concerned that Walmart would eventually push down prices and any brands selling through Walmart risks losing the “premium” image.
Those concerns come as specialty stores across the active space in general have continually vexed seeing outdoor’s popular brands being sold by third-party sellers on Amazon.com below MAP (minimum advertising prices). In launching the Premium Outdoor Store, Walmart claims to be offering vendors more control over third-party sellers on its online marketplace.
Comerford told the Wall Street Journal that the response from outdoor retailers is shortsighted as consumers expect a wide selection of items online and he believes limiting selections to specialty is “just not going to work long-term.”
He concluded his LinkedIn note with a challenge: “At the end of the day, the question becomes, ‘What industry do we want to be?’ A small, exclusionary, slow-growing industry dominated by one or two large retailers that dictate everything from distribution and promotional calendars, or a large, inclusive, fast-growing industry embraced by a growing customer base and populated by many innovative and inspiring outdoor brands?”
A poll on RetailWire asking “How open should the outdoor industry be to supporting Walmart’s Premium Outdoor Store website?” delivered fairly split results. Fifty-four percent thought the outdoor industry should be either “somewhat open” or “wide open” to supporting Walmart’s effort while the remainder felt the industry should be ”somewhat reserved” or “closed.”
Some of RetailWire’s BrainTrust panelists felt vendors ultimately won’t be able to pass on the volume and exposure that comes from selling on Walmart.com or Amazon.com. A few felt the outdoor industry has to catch-up to consumer expectations around online selling.
“Will it hurt some of the outdoor specialty stores?,” wrote Mark Ryski, founder and CEO, HeadCount Corp. “Probably, but how is this different than any other category? Ultimately every retailer needs to find their place in the market, and competing against Walmart and Amazon is just part of the market.”
Added Harley Feldman, co-founder and CMO, Seeonic, “Eyeballs on products should help any retailer, and Walmart is providing an opportunity for a huge number of eyeballs.”
Said Phil Chang, a retail consultant, “The Premium Outdoor Store is just a punctuation for the outdoor/sports industry that big, fat, margins are a thing of the past. Lamenting that those are gone/lashing out at new retailer options aren’t going to change that. They need to get with the program — build experiential, cater to the evolving consumer and be agile enough to sell things that you can be competitive with on the Premium Outdoor Store.”
Susan O’Neal, CEO, Dabbl, felt Walmart could prove to help vendors’ deal with Amazon. She wrote, “As long as they can provide the traffic to rival Amazon’s sales, suppliers who have seen a significant percentage of their volume move to Amazon have a great deal of reason to give Walmart a chance. The better Walmart gets at understanding and catering to small business and brand needs, the faster those premium sellers will move to Walmart and abandon Amazon to bots and resellers.”
Still, others on RetalWire felt the choice to sell on Walmart.com was up to each brand and agreed with outdoor stores in the risks of over-exposure.
Christopher P. Ramey, president, Affluent Insights & The Home Trust International, wrote, “Brands are defined by the brands with whom they’re associated. There is no platform that is appropriate for every brand.”
James Tenser, principal, VSN Strategies, said top brands that choose to withdraw from the big online marketplaces may leave an opening for mass market brands to step in. But he also recognized the image risks.
“There’s a natural tension between brands’ desire for wider distribution and specialty retailers’ desire to carry an assortment with brand cachet,” added Tenser. “Walmart has very vigorously stirred this pot.”
Ananda Chakravarty, a retail consultant and a former senior analyst at Forrester, said, “The question is unique to the brand opportunity and each vendor needs to figure this out for themselves. The benefits are clear: larger customer base, broader distribution and regulated control of their brand online (promised anyway). The costs: brand dilution, distribution control, and different focus customers.”
Chakravarty added, “Vendors can build their own sites or work with larger, dedicated outdoor players like REI, Cabela’s and Camping World (who want to protect exclusivity of the “personal outfitter” brand). Regardless, the vendors need to find some way to be online.”
Eoin Comerford’s LinkedIn letter to the industry also drew a number of responses.
Kyle Frost, creative director at The Outbound Collective, wrote, “I tend to be with Moosejaw on this one. I think this situation highlights a lot of the hypocrisy within the industry about inclusion/access. There was a similar backlash by brands against Amazon in the ‘early days’ when they started making deals with retailers.”
Rob Coughlin, VP of sales and product development, Granite Gear, wrote, “While I agree with the assertions that our industry lacks diversity, asserting that WalMart is the answer is a tough sell.”
Photo courtesy Walmart