Frankly Speaking: Rewriting the Rules

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. closed its Web store for remodeling last Monday night. Visit Walmart.com in the next few weeks and all you'll see is a letter from the company's CEO telling you to come back once the dust has settled. This is, of course, not The Way It's Supposed to Be Done. One e-retailing analyst promptly pronounced the shutdown "an insanely bad idea." Another pundit sarcastically smirked, "A wonderful stroke of genius."

We all know what the official playbook says about situations like this: You keep the old Web store online, then cut over when you're ready with the new site. We take it for granted that's the One Right Way to do it.

Of course, that official-playbook approach is exactly what Wal-Mart used when it redesigned its site last year. That project was, to put it bluntly, a disaster. The site was supposed to be done by October. It didn't actually launch until January. So much for the biggest shopping season of the year.

Then the new site got lousy reviews from both customers and critics such as Gomez Advisors Inc. : too many layers and clicks, not enough product information, too hard to check out. So much for Wal-Mart's big new e-retailing initiative.

Within months, the company was looking for a way to dump the newly launched design. Wal-Mart finally ended up this July buying HomeWarehouse.com for its Web-store technology. That's also when the company hatched its plan to pull the plug on Walmart.com during the transition.

So much for the official playbook. We all love that playbook, don't we? We love its universal rules that make perfect sense. We love its time-tested directives that spell out exactly the right thing to do for most e-retailers, most of the time.

It's easy to live by that playbook. If we're not careful, we'll get sucked into believing that it's always right.

But the playbook is based on some crucial assumptions. It assumes you've got a pretty good e-business you're just trying to make better. It assumes you've got enough customers that you don't want to risk losing them. It assumes you've got something worth building on.

Which in Walmart.com's case is probably wrong on every count. There's nothing worth saving - not the site, not the trickle of customers, not the technology. So they've bulldozed it.

The playbook also assumes e-retail is the business. For Wal-Mart, that's certainly not true - all those real-world stores will keep the cash flowing and the brand very much alive no matter how long the Web site is off the map.

And the playbook ignores a key reality of corporate IT politics: As long as you've got a Web store up - even a creaky, clunky piece of junk - you don't face real heat if the schedule slips. A few weeks or a few months late? Big deal - the old site is still running.

That kind of complacency burned Walmart.com the last time around. It's the same deadly complacency that screws up too many projects, on and off the Web.

But not for Walmart.com - not anymore. The old site's gone. Now they're working without a net. They're committed. This time, they miss the selling season, and they're dead.

Jeanne Jackson, Wal-Mart's online CEO since April, used to run The Gap's online and catalog businesses, and she turned around Banana Republic from a dead-end safari-clothes chain to a hot retailer. She knows retail and e-retail. She knows the playbook as well as any e-retailer alive - and she's the one behind throwing it out and pulling the plug on the old Walmart.com.

Maybe she's right. Maybe she's wrong.

But you can bet that right now, everybody at Walmart.com is racing the clock to get the new site online - and nobody's taking anything for granted.

Hayes, Computerworld's senior news columnist, has covered IT for more than 20 years. Contact him at frank_hayes@computerworld.com.

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