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Walmart e-commerce GM outlines digital opportunity at Emerson Group's Industry Day


PHILADELPHIA — It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking about e-commerce as just another store or just another channel warned Musab Balbale, VP and general manager for Walmart e-commerce, but it's not.

"Fundamentally, that's totally the wrong way to think about e-commerce," he told attendees at Emerson Group's 10th Annual Retail Industry Day last month. "The reality is e-commerce is about digital. It's about the fact that regardless of the age demographic, over 70% of Americans use digital to influence their shopping trip."

And roughly half use digital while they are actually in the aisles shopping for your products.

To better capture the perspective necessary to succeed in a digital environment, marketers need to disconnect point of sale from the point of influence. "Does your online presence support off-line sales and does your off-line sales support online sales?" Balbale asked.

And that creates issues, he said. It's one thing to leverage three inches of in-line real estate against four feet of category allotment, to create a package that captures the consumer's eye and helps differentiate against the dozens of similar products on the shelf. It's quite another to do that across an endless aisle. "How do you manage your brand? How do you connect with customers on a site, like ours, that has 36 million products that are competing with yours?" Balbale asked.

It all comes down to customer experience, and how well a branded CPG manufacturer can manage that experience. "All the customer journey mapping that any of you will do about online shopping will show that it's the moment that somebody receives the box that's the highlight of their shopping experience," he said.

Manufacturing discovery is another key component to succeeding in the digital space, Balbale added. "I know brick-and-mortar retail sales, what's the equivalent of an end-cap? What's the equivalent of being in the strike zone in an aisle? What's the equivalent of an FSI? If you're not asking about the analogies that are relevant and relates to your brand, you're not asking the right set of questions," Balbale cautioned. There's a whole host of places on a digital page where a well-placed banner can call out that discovery, he added.

And digital represents the future of both merchandising and marketing, as evidenced by emerging digital-only brands like Casper, an online mattress company. "For any of you who have kids going to college, they're probably talking about Casper as being their first mattress," Balbale said. "We're selling mattresses online. That's a logistical nightmare that 18 months ago we would have never imagined."

Retailers are also re-inventing their perspective, Balbale noted. "One of the places we think we can win is making Americans live easier," he said. "Money was the currency of the '80s and '90s when Walmart really took off. Time, more than anything, is the currency we're all working on today. Walmart, especially, feels that our emerging 'place' is to make time more efficient, especially for busy families."

To that end, Walmart is expanding assortment online and is focused on improving fulfillment. "Worlds are blending," he added. "Our 4,700 stores are not just stores. They're 4,700 distribution points that are within 10 miles of 90% of America. That just changes fundamentally how we think about delivery and fulfillment."

Balbale has more than 15 years of experience in consumer and retail. Prior to Walmart and, Balbale was VP of International and Business Development at the Vitamin Shoppe, where he was responsible for merchandising and operations. Balbale began his career in strategy and investing roles at The Boston Consulting Group, Charles Schwab and Summit Partners and has his Bachelor’s Degree from Yale University and his MBA from Harvard Business School.

Balbale's presentation talk was part of the Emerson Group’s 10th annual Retail Industry Day, hosted in late September to a packed room of hundreds of merchants eager to discover how to better proposition their products for tomorrow's ever-evolving consumer.

Every day this week, Drug Store News will be featuring content connected to the Emerson Group's 10th Annual Retail Industry Day. The first presentation emphasized the importance behind connecting with people, including employees, colleagues and consumers, in an effort to get at the heart of business with CNBC's Marcus Lemonis.  That was followed by marketer Colleen DeCourcy, chief creative officer for Wieden+Kennedy. She discussed how to keep catching the kind of lightning in a bottle that makes brands spark.

Up next is a joint presentation from L2 Inc.'s  Evan Neufeld and Jane Fisher. L2 helps identify the must-have omnichannel features retailers need to meet the expectations of their consumers and provides insights into the best-practices of brands using disruptive technology.

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