Wal-Mart has long been positioned as the low-price leader. Leveraging its supply chain and logistics system, competitors couldn’t match Wal-Mart’s cost structure. Now at least some consumers perceptions are changing. In this Wall Street Journal article, “Wal-Mart Loses Edge” (August 16, 2011, non-subscribers may need to click here) we read about recent consumer surveys that show the retailer losing its “lowest price” positioning. In one survey of 1500 Wal-Mart shoppers, “86% no longer thought it had the lowest prices” while in another survey the number was 60%. Whichever the number, this is a big problem for a retailer that has long enjoyed a well-deserved reputation for low prices. While Wal-Mart’s perception of value fades, stores like Dollar Tree are seeing their perception of value rise.
While fewer consumers perceive Wal-Mart as the low price leader, what is the reality? The article reports mixed objective evidence. In comparisons with Target, with one study by Morgan Stanley showing that in Chicago Target is about even with Wal-Mart (though Wal-Mart was more than 20% lower priced than Safeway and Supervalu) and another study by Goldman Sachs showing Wal-Mart 6.2% lower than Target overall.
This case study could provide interesting fodder when you discuss positioning. We define positioning in our books as “how consumers think about proposed or present brands in a market.” You can remind students that perception is what counts among consumers.
You might recall that a few years ago Wal-Mart changed its tagline from “Always Low Prices – Always” to “Save Money. Live Better.” Wal-Mart wanted to appeal to a more upscale crowd and develop a greener image. Perhaps this change de-emphasized the previous price positioning. The new dual positioning may not be as clear to consumers — opening opportunities for dollar stores to take the lowest price mantel from Wal-Mart.
This opens the door to a good discussion with your students. Asking them: What should Wal-Mart do now? Change its positioning? Or try to re-gain the low price position? Given its history and strengths, it seems clear to me that the retailer needs to regain the consumer perception of value. Perhaps there is a need for more advertising? Or should the store revisit the everyday low pricing model it has traditionally used — perhaps the hi-lo pricing models of some competitors have helped confuse the market and harmed Wal-Mart’s positioning. Also posted at Learn the 4 Ps.