Wal-Mart's Facebook Deal A Clever Way To Awaken Lethargic Store Managers

Wal-Mart on Tuesday (Oct. 11) announced a deal with Facebook to launch more than 3,500 store-specific Facebook pages. This move could mark the beginning of a key positioning change—both with the world's largest retailer and the many other chains likely to follow Wal-Mart's strategy—of thinking of the Web face of Wal-Mart being one chain instead of thousands of local stores.

Beyond the obvious—strengthening the local friendly face of the neighborhood store—this could alert corporate to stores that are resonating with their audiences and those that are not. It's not unusual for chains to allow specific stores to have very different product mixes based on the manager's read on local customers. In turn, this could enable those differences to be much more pronounced than is practical today with a single walmart.com site.

This all presumes, though, that customer interactions with local Facebook sites—especially as measured by the number of "likes" a site gets—is a meaningful metric. That's far from being an absolute. Likes may not reveal much of anything, given how often customers are bribed into saying that they "like" a site for a discount or a free product. Indeed, such promotions themselves undermine "like" campaigns because, in the eyes of customers, they directly cheapen the like programs. In other words, the like program is only valuable if it attracts customers and that will only happen if customers find it credible and persuasive. Knowing that many joined because they were bribed kills that credibility.

Setting that aside, many stores will have more or fewer likes given the demographics of their communities. An older neighborhood with relatively few Facebook users, for example, may get less Facebook visits and likes but it still might be extremely popular with its customers.

Also, stores can choose to do a lot—or not—with those pages. Few stores have extensive marketing budgets, but putting up signs that tell customers secret bargains exist on the local Facebook pages will boost Facebook activity without necessarily boosting store revenue or profits. Presumably, corporate may not know about such differences and would have to rely on the local store managers to tell them.

However, there are two kinds of store managers involved here: those whose FB pages are doing really well and those whose pages are doing poorly. Presumably, corporate would only be interested in the outliers. The managers who are doing quite well on FB are likely to say nothing beyond, "Aw, shucks, boss. I was only doing my best for my beloved customers."

Therefore, corporate will only hear the explanations about community and whatnot from managers whose sites are doing poorly. After hearing that from several dozen poor FB performers, even the most sympathetic exec will turn suspicious. It would certainly bring in new information to corporate. But the reliability of that new information? That's a very different question.

The program has other elements, though, that sound much more encouraging. Among them are an area that touts local-only products and printable maps of product layout for specific time periods. These maps could accelerate shopping when stores shift around merchandise positioning.

The Facebook move "allows us to bridge the gap between local and social, giving millions of customers the personalized shopping experience they expect from Walmart," said Walmart Chief Marketing Officer Stephen Quinn, according to a Walmart statement.

Indeed it does enable bridging that gap. But the real magic here is that it will push—OK, aggressively shove—local store managers to get active on encouraging customer engagement. There's something about very public numbers that can motivate even the most lethargic Wal-Mart store manager. For some, Facebook might translate to Face The Music.

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