Walmart has yet to confirm widespread news reports this week that a launch is imminent for an expanded paid membership program for U.S. shoppers, although financial markets and analysts had already voiced approval, and the plans as reported would appear to support the big company’s vision for an integrated omnichannel offering that would expand its share of customer spending.
The service, allegedly to be known as Walmart+, was reportedly set to launch earlier this year before the coronavirus threw the U.S. into crisis. Recode, which was the first to report on the service in February, said this week Walmart+ would launch by the end of the month, although it wasn’t immediately clear as to the scope of the debut or the particulars of the benefits for paid members.
As previously reported, Walmart+ is expected to carry an annual membership fee of $98—the same price the Bentonville, Ark.-based retail giant currently charges members of its Delivery Unlimited program, which is expected to be absorbed by the new perks program. Recode said the offering would also include gasoline discounts, access to technology tools in-stores, early access to deals, and perhaps, exclusive access to streaming entertainment such as the “Camp by Walmart” offering the company recently debuted on its mobile app.
Walmart+ could also tie together elements enabling other technologies and services the company and its divisions have experimented with in the U.S. and worldwide over recent years, including the popular Scan & Go program at Sam’s Club and the white-glove InHome delivery service launched in select markets last year, and it could glean from PhonePe, the mobile wallet and payment system behind its Flipkart investment in India.
Walmart+ is said to be headed up by Janey Whiteside, the chief customer officer who joined Walmart two years ago from American Express. Whiteside has been outspoken about Walmart’s opportunity to leverage technology innovation to expand its share of spending and appeal to a wider group of shoppers than its price-focused traditional core.
The coronavirus crisis is helping to speed this vision to life as customers consolidate shopping trips and e-commerce demand grows.
Though somewhat at odds with its egalitarian roots, a paid membership program for Walmart would also help it compete more directly with the threat of Amazon, whose Prime membership club has been a smashing success, offering paid members services such as streaming video and music in addition to fast deliveries and free returns and a valuable platform for advertising and one-to-one marketing—difficult for its physical counterparts to replicate. This could also facilitate how the omnichannel customer of the future is likely to shop, according to Doug McMillon, Walmart’s CEO.
Speaking at the retailer’s annual investment community meeting in February, McMillon did not address a paid membership specifically but said, “I think we’re headed toward a time when customers won’t really think about buying their routine items very often. They will tell us once, or less frequently anyway, and we’ll take care of it. … Customers will start to think of us like a membership service, where we make sure the items they use all the time are available in their homes.”
News of an imminent Walmart+ launch helped the company’s stock jump by nearly 7% this week. Analyst Scott Mushkin of R5 Capital in a note to clients highlighted the opportunity for a paid membership program to improve omnichannel profitability at the retailer by offsetting the massive investments of the integrated omnichannel experience that kept investors at bay in recent years.