Ambiguity Will Kill You

Go figure. After all these years, it ends up that Wal-Mart is commitment-phobic.

At least, that’s how it seems lately. And it may be one of the reasons that the Bentonville Behemoth seems to be running into trouble no matter where it turns or what it does.

If Wal-Mart were a sailboat, it could fairly be accused of spending so much time tacking back and forth that it really isn’t getting anywhere. The trick of tacking when you’re sailing is to gauge the wind just right and use it to make progress. Guess wrong, and you end up nowhere, or worse, someplace you don’t want to be.

For Wal-Mart, the lack of commitment seems to center on how it sees itself and its customers. I’ll paint with a broad brush for a minute, and observe that the company has always had a traditionalist culture that has served fairly conservative people and communities. It was a “red state” kind of company, and so even if you disagreed with it, it seemed perfectly in character when Wal-Mart refused to carry CDs with certain lyrics, or DVDs that explored edgy themes (or forced distributors to make changes before such products would be allowed on its shelves). Not necessarily acceptable, but understandable.

But when Wal-Mart hit what appeared to be the outer edges of how much Wal-Mart merchandise its typical consumers could buy, it was forced to look elsewhere for customers and sales. The elsewhere included urban markets that were as foreign to it as some of the global markets it simultaneously was entering (to mixed results). It also included “blue states” that had a more liberal view of the world and about what was acceptable/understandable.

All this has meant that Wal-Mart has had to do all sorts of untypical things, such as join the Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, a move that outraged folks who thought they could count on the fact that Wal-Mart saw the world the same way they did.

The sexuality issue has turned into a major hairball for Wal-Mart, which recently had to deal with the fact that a religious newspaper, the Florida Baptist Witness, accused it of supporting “the homosexual agenda,” whatever that is.

The story said, in part: “If an Internet user types the word ‘gay’ into the search engine for Wal-Mart’s online bookstore, more than 1,000 titles turn up. By offering book selections that cater to the gay and lesbian crowd, America’s top discount retailer is demonstrating a desire to satisfy a vocal minority at the expense of losing the support of a large demographic that helped make Wal-Mart the successful business it has been for years.” And, the article continued, “Southern Baptists are hard at work spreading the word about Wal-Mart’s behavior,” and it noted that there is “a vast network of Christian women who use e-mail to monitor cultural developments such as Wal-Mart’s initiatives toward improving its service to homosexuals.”

Yikes. All Wal-Mart was trying to do was sell some books, and it ended up in the middle of the culture wars.

This is hardly the only time this has happened. Wal-Mart also has managed to ignite tempers at both ends of the spectrum with what I think is its wishy-washy approach to carrying and dispensing the Plan B “morning after” pill. At first it didn’t want to stock it at all, and then it wanted to stock it but allowed pharmacists to decide whether or not to dispense it, and then it had to reconsider that approach when a case in Ohio got it in hot water with pro-choice groups, not to mention the media.

Wal-Mart has had to adjust its approach to business in other ways, too, such as reducing its presence in the gun business, at least in certain markets. Or displaying condoms in the open, a tactic that is sure to annoy certain groups.

By the way, here’s a quiz that demonstrates exactly where you are positioned in the culture wars:

What is more dangerous to society?

a) a gun

b) a condom

c) the Plan B “morning after” pill

d) a book with the word “gay” in it.

But I digress.

Whatever you think about Wal-Mart and its varied policies, it seems clear that the Bentonville Behemoth is undergoing an internal battle for its heart and soul as well as engaging in an external battle for the hearts and souls of its various constituencies.

And it is doing so under the glare of the media spotlight. Never an easy task.

The Internet bookstore issue is a perfect example of the kinds of decisions that Wal-Mart has to make. Being a First Amendment kind of guy, I think that bookstores by their very definition ought to be places that offer the widest possible selection and ranges of opinion, and that Internet bookstores are uniquely positioned to be both deeper and wider than their bricks-and-mortar counterparts. Carrying a book about a subject doesn’t equate to espousing or supporting it. (Amazon.com carries both “Mein Kampf” and “Das Kapital,” but I’m pretty sure that its management does not think highly of either Adolf Hitler or Karl Marx.)

Now, there would be nothing wrong with Wal-Mart (or any other company, for that matter) deciding to be a specialty bookstore that only carries certain kinds of books, but that doesn’t really fit into its mass-marketing strategy, especially at a time when it is trying to become more urban and capture a broader range of shoppers.

But that’s the decision it has to make, and the decisions it makes regarding the books it carries will bleed over into its other merchandising decisions, whether about CDs or DVDs or pharmaceuticals.

My view: Wal-Mart ought to say in its advertising and press releases that it is willing to sell anything to anybody, as long as the item does not hurt people. But that’s just my opinion, and it may not fit into Wal-Mart’s long-term strategic goals.

I do have one suggestion for Wal-Mart, though. (Not that management is asking.) Here it is: Whatever you do, be clear. And then live with the implications and results.

Ambiguity will kill you.

The worst thing you can do is try to have it every way. Because by trying to be everything to everybody, you may end up standing for nothing and appealing to nobody.

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