Wal-Mart Learns Some Hard Mobile Lessons

Written by Evan Schuman
February 22nd, 2008

There can indeed be too much of a good thing, especially when the good things are being sent as cellphone text messages. That’s one of the lessons that the world’s largest retailer learned in December when it trialed an opt-in mobile consumer program.

The program allowed for consumers to have short-duration sales messaged to their cellphones, theoretically giving them an advantage in pursuing those sales.

One person working on the trial—sworn to secrecy by Wal-Mart—said the group initially tried cramming in a lot of sales info into each text message. This was done on the theory that it would increase the probability of hitting on an item that particular consumer would want. "We were sending 10-15 in about three or four text messages," the manager said. "We learned that three messages is where the consumer says, ‘I’ve heard enough from you, Mr. Retailer,’."

The trial involved hundreds of thousands of consumers, after the chain tried recruiting more than a million. Although the source wouldn’t reveal the exact number, she did say, "About 10 percent of those we approached went for it."

The chain also learned that if they crammed a bunch of messages into as little time as possible, it went over better. Given that such constant messages might be thought to annoy consumers, the discovery was counter-intuitive.

Their theory? Consumers were believed to only check their text messages every few hours, so getting them all bunched up was considered less annoying. "The compressed time period alienated people less," the manager said.

Depends on the age of the consumer, I suppose. For younger consumers that live for their text messages, the results could easily be quite different.


3 Comments | Read Wal-Mart Learns Some Hard Mobile Lessons

  1. Madame X Says:

    Do I really have an emergency need to know about a sale on toilet paper? …or whatever? Text messaging at this level is an abuse of consumers.

  2. RetailEvent Says:

    We have to recognize that Wal-Mart, while missing the bullseye slightly, was right on the target.

    I can not tell you how many times I’ve been in a Wal-Mart and wished I could access information with my phone or Blackberry.

    I should be able to check my ‘site to store’ order with texting instead of waiting 20 minutes for a store associate.

    I should be able to enter a SKU from the store tag and send a text message to see if there is stock in the rear of the store, and actually send a request to bring it to the shelf. Imagine Bentenville receiving 50 text message copies that the Turkey Lake Superstore doesn’t have Tide 64oz on the shelf all day, but the store shows two skids in the back.

    I should be able to validate price by texting the UPC number instead of walking around the store looking for a price verifier.

    There is so much that Wal-Mart can do with text messaging for relatively minimal cost that will improve the customer experience.

    And yes…. when I text the request on a price on the Jiffy peanut butter 16 oz. Wal-Mart texts me back a promotion price on grape jelly and a loaf of bread.

    Hmmmmmm isn’t that exactly the end result of the texting value ?

    I would like to walk in the Wal-Mart store and text, “bicycle pump” and the response message to be “aisle 34 – toys” or “aisle 38 – automotive” And yes, they can even suggest Bell foot pump for $19.99.

    I would like to walk in the Wal-Mart store and text “sprinkler timer” and the response to be “Garden – aisle 21, section C, 3rd shelf from the floor.” “Home & Garden timer on sale for $29.99” “Garden hose 50 foot $5.95” “Roses clearance $3 each”

    I have a ton of ways that Wal-Mart can enhance my shopping experience with texting and I’ll help them for FREE !!!!!

    And yes, I’m 56 years old. I don’t phone text. I blackberry. But if I can have these value added services via texting, you can bet I will be texting with my phone and paying the $5.95/mo unlimited texting.

    By the way, I have a powerpoint presentation somewhere on my laptop from 2003 to BEA and SAP on the future of texting and RFID along the same theme. I wish I had a way I could text my laptop to find the file.

  3. D'Anne Hotchkiss Says:

    Evan, in a rare occurrence for you, you’ve buried the lede. ‘”The compressed time period alienated people less,” the manager said.’
    Excuse me?? Is the benchmark for effective marketing set so low that ‘alienating people less’ is considered success and therefore a proper course of action? Smoke our brand of cigarettes, they kill fewer people than the others! This drug won’t cure you, but it won’t kill you! Text messaging in a shorter time period irritates your customers less.
    Perhaps marketers should look for ways to communicate that don’t irritate customers at all, and even make them appreciate the information.
    Just a thought.


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