Walmart's Clever Price-Comparison Trial: Show-and-Tell Without Going To The Store

Walmart has started a trial in three cities where shoppers can E-mail photos of competitors' receipts, inviting Walmart to do its price comparison without the shopper ever having to actually walk into a Walmart. This clever gambit shares some of the strategy of its online cash program, where the chain didn't want to lose online shoppers merely because they didn't have—or didn't want to use—a payment card.

In this trial program, called logically enough the "Receipt Comparison Tool," the idea is to showcase hopefully lower prices to consumers who don't want to walk into a Walmart store. (It's not like such hesitation is totally unwarranted.)

It's sort of a Missouri approach, with the shopper in effect saying, "Show me. I like my store. But if you show me concretely how you'd charge me less for the same stuff, I'll drive over to your store quickly enough. But you show me first."

On the practical side, the move—which started mid-August—collects E-mails from prospects (potentially for future promotions) and then associates those prospects with specific products of interest.

Walmart has not announced the list of retailers it will compare its product pricing with, which puts consumers in a frustrating position. Many will go through the effort of taking a picture of their receipt, filling out the Walmart form and submitting it—only to then be told they needn't have bothered, because that retailer is not eligible for the program.

Why not announce the list, so Walmart could avoid alienating some of the very customers it is trying to woo? Could the extra data from all those don't-have-a-chance submissions really be worth that alienation risk?

This process is quite complex, because Walmart does two fairly common things for its in-store pricing. It localizes pricing, so one store in one neighborhood could have different pricing than a store in another area, and it updates pricing throughout the day based on various issues, including supply and demand.

This means quite a bit has to happen with that receipt. First, the merchant must be identified—such identification is not in any uniform spot—and matched against Walmart's confidential list of retailers that it will compare against. Second, the items must all be identified, which is not necessarily easy, given the huge number of rather cryptic codes many retailers—especially smaller ones—use.

Next, the system must identify the nearest Walmart to that location (relatively easy). It must then do a lookup to determine what the pricing was for that item at that specific store at that specific date and time. That's one of the reasons for a seven-day limit. This database is huge enough as is, let alone if it needed to record every item's price for every store for every hour going back months.

"We do have to go through and use various tools to—in real time—cross-reference the prices," said Deisha Galberth Barnett, a senior director for Walmart media relations.

Walmart's marketing goal with this program—to reinforce its pitch that it delivers the lowest prices for most items—is especially critical now, given a late August report from Bloomberg that found Target's prices were actually lower.

Galberth Barnett tried to put the Bloomberg report into a Walmartian context. She legitimately pointed out that pricing changes with various specials and that only a long-term view is meaningful. "We have beaten Target (in the Bloomberg pricing surveys) for the last 10 months straight. In any marketplace, from time to time, you will see a shift like that." She added that Target has unusual sales, which she said do not ultimately help the shopper. "We don't do gimmicks," she said.In the terms and conditions on the Walmart site for this trial, the chain points out that not only will it use the data for a price-comparison pitch back to the customer, but it will also share the results with Walmart suppliers "for purposes of calculating the comparison." That raises some questions. Doesn't Walmart know its own prices? Why would it have to check with Nike or Nabisco to determine its sneaker or cereal pricing?

More to the privacy point, what's to prevent those suppliers from reaching out to those customers directly with their own E-mail pitches? There's nothing P&G or J&J love more than some closure, being able to identify the consumers purchasing their products through major chains. But why would Walmart want this? It seems an odd move, especially given that it was included in a section titled "privacy."

The fine print also rattles off the usual restrictions. (What would a Walmart price-comparison offer be without lots of restrictions?) It starts with being only offered in specific markets—Albuquerque, Atlanta and Chicago are the first—"and against select competitors." Won't that sound to consumers as though Walmart is saying, "We'll only compare prices with those we know are more expensive than we are"?

It reasonably limits transaction matches to those purchased within the prior seven days ("I found this receipt from 1969. It's a bit faded, but the prices sure look good"), and it also requires that "there must be a Walmart location nearby the competitor location where you shopped. Only receipts with at least ten (10) items can be compared." That 10-item requirement is a nice touch, as it reinforces the message that—theoretically—Walmart would save money on full shopping trips, not necessarily when a shopper grabs a single item on a special sale.

Then there's the restriction that will rule out many potential comparisons, a group that gets even bigger as chains try and differentiate products more to thwart showcasing. "To ensure an accurate comparison, we only compare items that are exactly alike. Therefore, we do not compare private label or random weight items such as meats and non-bagged produce. We only compare exact items that we carry at Walmart." It also adds a reasonable coupon-eliminator: "We do not include any redeemed coupons in the comparison due to the difficulty in matching up coupons with the items shown on the receipt."

The best of this new trial: It shows that Walmart is willing to think creatively, to not accept the routine assumptions about online, in-store or anything else. Using cash for online? Heresy. Have an in-store price-comparison program where the customers don't have to go in-store (well, at least not into your store)? Ridiculous.

And, of course, from a marketing standpoint, it sends the message to shoppers that Walmart must be convinced it really does offer lower prices or else why try such a trial? Some unorthodox merged-channel thinking on top of price confidence and the willingness to play a little Missouri, "OK, we will show you first"? There's a reason Walmart is such a frightening competitor.