Brands and Wal-Mart: value vs. meaning?


By the 19th century, the department store was the most powerful force in retail. By the end of the 20th century, it was struggling to survive.

Department stores were good at grandeur but not so good at creating value for the things it sold or the consumer who shopped there. Indeed, from a brand point of view, the store proved actually entropic. Large, disorganized, understaffed, badly appointed, the department store actually diminished the meanings of the brand.

This is why, in the 1980s, brands began to demand a small corner of the department store for themselves. Ralph Lauren created its own little zone, complete with its own décor, pictures of rowing teams, old school oars. This was potent meaning manufacture but it came from a stow-away on the SS Department store. The brand was in effect wresting the retail experience out of the hands of the department store. To add injury to this insult, the national brand began to set up boutiques and retail outlets of its own. The Departure was now large, clueless and vulnerable, a relic of the retail experiment.

I couldn’t help wondering whether this fate might some day over take Wal-Mart. To be sure, Wal-Mart is, at the moment, the most powerful force in retail. Eight per cent of retail goods sold in the US are sold at Wal-Mart. On the day after Thanksgiving, Wal-Mart stores sold $1.5 billion in merchandise. The sales total for the year will be something like $300 billion.

But signs of trouble in today’s and yesterday’s Wall Street Journal. Wal-Mart is facing competition on four fronts. It is not very good at fashion, and here Target poses a threat. It is not very good at making a connection to the locality and here stores like HEB supermarkets in Texas pose a threat. It is bad at things that are unusual. “Toy experts say an increasing number of affluent parents are avoiding Wal-Mart Stores … in a quest for higher-quality and more-unusual fare. ‘I think what we’re seeing is an anti-Wal-Mart backlash.’” Most of all, it is bad at making meaning. “Bed, Bath and Beyond is about selling lifestyle and Wal-Mart is about selling a commodity.” (Marshall Cohen, chief industry analyst at NPD group).

In short, Wal-Mart is good at price but bad at meaning. It can “pile em high and sell em cheap.” But in the process it reduces the brand to a commodity and the retail experience to a trudge through tedium. Placed in the Wal-Marts , brands created to deliver potent meanings, fashion, locality, individuality and lifestyle, are diminished or missing. Wal-Mart actually manages to wick away the very meanings that add value to the product and the life of the consumer.

Price is a potent advantage. And clearly Wal-Mart delivers here like crazy. With special relationships with off shore suppliers and the advantage of huge runs, the Wal-Mart advantage is unbeatable. But the rise of new competitors tells us what we have always known: the price is a necessary condition of consumer engagement not a sufficient one. The consumer culture turns not just on commodities, but on products that carry new and potent meanings into the life of the consumer. Take these out and, the results are clear. As Lear would say, “Allow not nature more than nature needs/ Man’s life is cheap as beasts.”

Companies, too.


Merrick, Amy, Gary McWilliams, Ellen Byron and Kortney Stringer. 2004. Targeting Wal-Mart. Wall Street Journal. December 1, 2004.

Pereira, Joseph and Stephanie Kang. 2004. Toys March Upmarket. Wall Street Journal. December 2, 2004.

Shakespeare, William. 1606. King Lear. Act III, Scene iv.

Warren, Susan. 2004. Texas Grocer Thrives by Catering to Locals. Wall Street Journal. December 1, 2004.

Williams, Rosalind H. 1982. Dream worlds: mass consumption in late nineteenth-century France. Berkeley: University of California Press.

7 thoughts on “Brands and Wal-Mart: value vs. meaning?

  1. Tom Guarriello

    The complex psychology of the retail business has kept me fascinated for the 10+ years I’ve been consulting within it. As you point out, Grant, the relationship between money and meaning is delicate and volatile.

    Look at Burberry. From signifier of British refinement to rap video “blingcessory,” to massive knock-off target, especially in Europe. The brand’s “price point” didn’t change once during that journey, but its “meaning point” changed significantly. Meaning is powerful, but unstable.

    Wal-Mart will continue to spawn a host of niche exploiters who challenge it on the basis of its inability to retain brand meaning in its utilitarian big-box context. But I’m not sure about this being the foundation of a backlash. Maybe. But meanwhile, its unimaginably huge (~300 freaking BILLION dollars!!) engine will continue to produce aisle after aisle of merchandise for the scores of millions of us who have come to rely on it as the 21st century general store. The medium is the message. Low price is stable. This may not be sufficient to get them to $500 billion, but, geez…

    Anyone interested in this should definitely see the Frontline piece, “Is Wal-Mart Good for America?”

  2. Grant

    Tom, thanks, I didn’t know about the Burberry experiment, very interesting. And you’re right: it’s is hard to imagine Wal-Marts much carrying about niche players. But I expect they are imperial, that they want everything, and this might force an accommodation in the things it did badly. Target might prove an inspiration to them here. Something about corporate self respect could operate here to urge them to be something more than the price players. we’ve seen it before. And imagine if they got half as good at meaning as they are know at everything else. Yikes! Thanks, Grant

  3. gary

    I heard on Fox and Friends this morning that seventy percent of Walmart products come from China. I don’t think brand loyalty is much of a factor in Chinese made goods, so there’s little to fear losing it.

  4. Liz

    I’d be interested in elucidating the class connections. I have the sense (with no data) that shopping at Walmart is threatening to class-aspirers, in a way that shopping at Target isn’t. Costco (at least in California) is not so class-threatening, especially for commodity purchases.

  5. Ennis

    True — Walmart and Kmart are downscale in a way that Target or Costco isn’t (Costcos actually stock gourmet brands, Target actually has reasonably good merchandise even outside their special name designer (Michael Graves) stuff).

    BUT Walmart has reach. In many parts of the country, Walmart is your only retail option. Furthermore, while the generic goods (pots, pans, plastic stuff, housewears) come from China, they still make sure to keep a good deal of higher end goods (upscale consumer equipment, some clothes) from big US labels. So, you can get an HP computer, printer and scanner package in Walmart. You can get labelled clothing, etc. So what if the coffee table is from China, who turns it over to look anyway?

    I think Walmart might have longer legs than we think.

  6. Mike Lawrey

    Very true,

    My kids want Uglydolls this Christmas.
    Forget looking in places like Wal-Mart or even Target for such a thing this year. Infact, my son is asking for “designer toys” for the most part. Luckilly I live in New York.


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