In the bad ideas department, Walmart deserves some leeway

With the possible exception of Amazon (Nasdaq: AMZN), there's nobody in retail that is more comforting thinking — and deploying — outside the box than Walmart (NYSE:WMT). If a company is willing to be creative about taking retail in untried directions, it's only humane to cut it a little slack when it discusses an overly wacky idea.

OK, to be fair, last week's Walmart idea about group-sourcing product delivery wasn't so much wacky as it was indescribably awful — an awfulness that was many orders of magnitude worse than the worst ideas to come out of an acid trip. An idea so dreadful that it cheered JCPenney executives and gave them hope. But stick with me here. The point is that Walmart is somewhat entitled to this exponentially horrible idea when one considers many of the impressive and equally risky ideas it has deployed or at least seriously trialed.

Walmart is now rapidly expanding an in-aisle mobile checkout idea that is simply brilliant. It's brilliant because it has a wonderfully benign nature that makes it an attractive sell to shoppers (faster checkout) while much more importantly housing a wide range of profit-based benefits to Walmart. And even those profit-boosting mechanisms are not that Machiavellian, as they also seemingly offer shopper benefits.

Let's drill down into the in-aisle mobile checkout.  The idea is that shoppers scan each product as they grab it from the shelf and place it in their cart. When the shopping is complete, the cart is wheeled to the self-checkout lane, where just one barcode is scanned from the mobile app and the shopper selects a payment method and can leave. Happy shopper.

So how does this make a happy Walmart? First, Walmart has never had a CRM program. Not only does this program get it one, but an extremely sophisticated one with the ability to track not only what was purchased but that which was merely considered. (The act of a shopper scanning a price and then not purchasing it can give a strong hint as to what the shopper was thinking.)

Better yet, it has a much greater ability to influence purchasing behavior. Instead of basket analysis coupons given after checkout, the mobile app can instantly deliver a $2-off coupon for Skippy peanut butter when a shopper scans the price — or puts into her cart — a jar of Jif peanut butter. As long as the shopper is still standing in the peanut butter area, the chance of that coupon changing the purchase is quite high.

What else? Beyond giving customers a really good reason to go to the higher-profit self-checkout, this opens up in-store mobile app usage — through the POS. That wireless signal (assuming the phone is turned on, is not in airplane mode and ideally has Wi-Fi activated) can be easily tracked even if the customer doesn't use the app. A shopper uses it once and then checks out with a payment card? Bingo. Walmart has a positive idea of the full name, specs and purchase history of the shopper associated with that phone signal. That customer can now be tracked on every subsequent visit, even if the app is never launched again.

It also opens up the possibilities for future customized pricing, based on a shopper's specific patterns. Those pricing customizations could extend to what pricing is shown to shoppers even when they visit Walmart.com. And all of this is done simply with the promise of faster checkout.

Then there's Walmart being the first major chain to try to integrate realtime social data into both online and in-store decision-making. And Walmart was the first to allow for cash purchases online — a move that was later copied by others. The list goes on.

Yeah, Walmart probably deserves a little slack.

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