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Walmart & Free Shipping: Who Will Suffer?

Once again, Walmart is making headlines with a business practice that will be good for its customers, and bad for its competitors. Here’s the story, by Stephanie Clifford for the NYT: Wal-Mart Says ‘Try This On’: Free Shipping For years, Wal-Mart has used its clout as the nation’s largest retailer to squeeze competitors with rock-bottom […]

Once again, Walmart is making headlines with a business practice that will be good for its customers, and bad for its competitors. Here’s the story, by Stephanie Clifford for the NYT: Wal-Mart Says ‘Try This On’: Free Shipping

For years, Wal-Mart has used its clout as the nation’s largest retailer to squeeze competitors with rock-bottom prices in its stores. Now it is trying to throw a holiday knockout punch online.

Starting Thursday, Wal-Mart Stores plans to offer free shipping on its Web site, with no minimum purchase, on almost 60,000 gift items, including many toys and electronics. The offer will run through Dec. 20, when Wal-Mart said it might consider other free-shipping deals….

Not surprisingly, Walmart’s competitors are alarmed. Smaller on-line businesses don’t get the kinds of sweet shipping rates that Walmart gets from UPS and FedEx, and they don’t have the regional distribution centres that allow Walmart to keep its shipping costs low. It’s pretty clear that this move by Walmart is going to put serious pressure — maybe even fatal pressure — on some of its competitors.

Just 2 quick points to make:

1) It’s worth noting (for the benefit of those who don’t know) that Walmart’s profit margins are already razor-thin. Yes, the make big profits overall, but that’s due to their mind-bogglingly huge volume of sales. On a per-sale basis, their profit is very small. So the money for shipping a given product (for free) isn’t coming out of the profits on sales of that product — the profits just aren’t there. Something has to give. One possibility is that it really is a short-term gimmick, perhaps intended precisely to drive competitors out of business. That would potentially count as an instance of predatory pricing, which would be at least arguably unethical and potentially illegal — in spite of the short-term benefits to consumers.

2) Normally when we think about Walmart’s effect on competitors, we think about its effect on its very small competitors, the ‘mom & pop’ operations. But I wonder whether that’s the case here. I’m no expert on the structure of the industry, but it seems that the companies most likely to be hurt are Walmart’s large and mid-sized competitors, i.e., companies that occupy roughly the same strategy space as Walmart. It seems to me (and it’s just a hypothesis) that most small retailers will have significantly different business strategies than Walmart, and hence won’t be competing directly with Walmart in ways that would let them fall victim to this latest maneuver. If I’m right, then if Walmart really can sustain this free shipping policy (and they haven’t claimed they’ll even try to) it would be very bad for its medium-sized and large competitors. If that’s the case, will people have the same kinds objections as they tend to have when Walmart’s consumer-friendly strategies are instead bad for small businesses?