Thursday, April 7, 2011

A Walmart Grocery Home Delivery Service in San Jose, California Wouldn't Likely Be Much to Write Home About

Walmart's ASDA chain delivers fresh food and groceries to online shoppers' homes in parts of the United Kingdom.

The Insider - Heard on the Street

An April 1 non-April Fool's Day report by Bloomberg (here) that Walmart Stores, Inc. might be planning to test an online-ordering and grocery home delivery service in the San Jose area in Northern California's San Francisco Bay Area has been getting a considerable amount of attention in the press over the last week.

However, as most often is the case, the numerous publications that have picked up on Bloomberg's piece have merely either re-printed the story partially, fully, or added a couple comments from a favorite industry analyst or two to what Bloomberg had already reported.

Here at Fresh & Easy Buzz we like to offer a bit more depth, particularly when it comes to a story first reported on by another publication. Therefore, I'm going to offer a little analysis, observation and commentary on what Walmart is up to in the San Jose, California region with its potential e-commerce/ grocery delivery scheme.

First, a little history: The idea of launching an online-ordering and home delivery business for fresh foods and groceries isn't brand new at Walmart Stores, Inc. A little over three years ago then corporate head of business development, David Wild, who's team was responsible for the retailer's initial small-format food and grocery store development efforts - the result of which are the four 'marketside by Walmart' stores in suburban Phoenix, Arizona that opened in August 2008 - was also very interested in Walmart's starting up an online ordering and home grocery delivery service.

The new business development team's initial target test market for the online/home delivery scheme was the San Francisco Bay Area. Wild, who left the company later in 2008 to become the CEO of United Kingdom auto parts and bicycle retailer Halfords, worked out of Walmart's Brisbane, California offices. Brisbane is an industrial and residential suburb of San Francisco, located about 50 miles from San Jose.

The online ordering and grocery delivery service was one of a number of new business ideas and concepts Wild and his team came up with that didn't become reality.

For example, another concept the team proposed was a brick-and-mortar health and wellness-oriented small-format store of about 10,000 square-feet that would be part drug store and part natural foods market, the overall focus being on selling products with a health and wellness orientation. Walmart has incorporated some aspects of the format into its new Walmart Express convenience format, the first three stores of which are set to open in a few months in Arkansas.

As part of the e-commerce/home delivery food discussions with the business development team in 2008, Walmart began slotting packaged food and grocery items on its website in early 2009, and has continued to add categories and items to the website since then. The items are ordered online, just like everything else on, and shipped to customers' homes via a postal carrier like Federal Express or UPS, just like does. No perishable foods are offered, however, just shelf-stable products.

Over the last few years, Walmart has off and on looked at testing the online ordering and grocery home delivery service, both in the San Francisco Bay Area and in a couple other regions of the U.S. The retailer's main interest in possibly trying such a service in the Bay Area is because Walmart has few stores in the region that offer fresh foods and groceries. It also continues to struggle in gaining approval from various Bay Area cities in its attempts to convert existing discount format stores into hybrid supercenters that offer fresh foods and groceries, along with attempts to build new supercenters, even smaller units in the 100,000-140,000 square-foot range. The average U.S. supercenter is about 180,000 square-feet.

As a result, the idea of launching a test of an online ordering and grocery home delivery service in the Bay Area has become more interesting to Walmart's senior brass. In essence, the long-term strategy the retailer is looking at in the Bay Area, where it hopes to open numerous smaller-format Walmart Market (30,000-60,000 square-foot food and grocery markets) and Walmart Express (15,000-30,000 square foot convenience-style grocery stores), is to combine however many supercenters it can get approved with the smaller-format stores mentioned above, and then add a grocery delivery service, starting in the San Jose region, where Walmart has enough supercenters so the stores can be used as order-fulfillment centers for the online orders.

Potential: The question that must be asked by and of Walmart though is: Does going into the online ordering and grocery home delivery business in the Bay Area, particularly at this stage of its meager brick-and-mortar store development and presence in the market region, make sense for the retailer? My answer: History and the current state of the online/home delivery business in the region suggests the answer to that question

For example, from the mid-1990's -to 2001 there were three retailers offering online ordering and home delivery of fresh food and groceries in the nine county San Francisco Bay Area, which today has a population of close to seven million people.

The three retailers were: Safeway Stores, Inc., which is headquartered in the East Bay Area city of Pleasanton; Albertsons; and Webvan, which was a pure-play online/home delivery grocery retailer that went bankrupt in 2011, after only a few years in business. Albertsons, then owned by Albertsons Inc. of Boise, Idaho, closed down its online ordering and home grocery delivery service a couple years later. Today, Safeway Stores, Inc. is the only major food retailer offering the service throughout the nine-county Bay Area. (What was the Albertsons' Northern California division is now owned by Modesto, California-based Save Mart Supermarkets. The stores operated under the Lucky banner.)

The fact Safeway today remains the only major fresh food and grocery online/home delivery grocer in the Bay Area, which research still shows is one of the better markets for the business in the U.S., is probably one of the motivating forces behind Walmart's consideration of launching such a service in the San Jose region.

Safeway fulfills customers' online grocery orders out of some of its supermarkets in the San Francisco Bay Area, where it has about 200 stores. Walmart would do the same, using a couple supercenters it operates in the San Jose metropolitan area.

But despite being the lone e-commerce/home delivery grocer in the Bay Area - and Safeway does a pretty good job at it - it remains a meager business for the grocer. Safeway CEO Steve Burd has recently said as much.

In fact, in an attempt to boost its online/home delivery business, last year Safeway held a very aggressive promotion over a number of months, offering first time users of, its e-commerce-home delivery site, $15 off any orders of $50 or more, along with free delivery. Safeway continued the aggressive promotion until mid-January of this year. Since then it's eliminated the $15-off deal but continues to offer free delivery to first-time users of the service. [You can read a December 15, 2010 story about the promotion in Fresh & Easy Buzz here: Safeway Wants to Grow its Online-Home Delivery Grocery Business - And is 'Giving Away the Store' to Prove it.]

Early this year Burd said in a conference call to analysts the promotion last year added some new business to but that basically it wasn't anything to write home about.

Keeping and continuing to promote the service makes good sense for Safeway though, in my analysis, because it fits well as an integrated and synergistic part of its overall food and grocery business in the Bay Area and in the handful of other U.S. regions where it offers home delivery. But, I can share this with you: Safeway's senior executives don't currently see as being one of the chain's major growth engines at present, even in its Bay Area home market.

Mega-Walmart can afford to experiment with and test an online ordering and grocery home delivery service in the San Jose region. After all, the start-up costs aren't huge - buying a few combination freezer/refrigerator/dry product delivery trucks, outfitting a few store backrooms to fulfill the online orders and spending some cash for marketing and advertising. But the benefits would likely also be meager, in my analysis.

Therefore, before it goes forward with the test - and our sources say Walmart hasn't decided if it will do so yet - the Bentonville, Arkansas-based mega-retailer should keep in mind that the majority of the customers of Safeway's online ordering and home grocery delivery service are dual-income (and higher income), well-educated younger professionals. These are the consumers in the Bay Area who primarily shop at Whole Foods Market, Safeway's more upscale stores and numerous other more upscale grocery markets in the Bay Area. They use primarily for convenience. Price isn't a motivating factor, particularly considering delivery charges add on $10 or more to a grocery order.

Will this demographic shop for their groceries at Walmart, even with home delivery? My analysis: I doubt it. Why: Walmart isn't their brand.Whole Foods is. Target is. Even Costco is. But not Walmart.

If I'm correct that means Walmart would need to reach a different shopper demographic (than Safeway does) with its online ordering and home delivery grocery service, like it does with its stores -  its traditional lower-income/middle income segment.

The problem with this segment when it comes to an online/home grocery delivery business for Walmart is consumers in these segments are looking to save money on grocery purchases not spend more, which unless Walmart delivers the orders for free or for a couple dollars, will be the case. Additionally, lower-to-middle income shoppers use online ordering/ home grocery delivery services in very low percentages, both in the Bay Area and nationally in the U.S., according to numerous studies.

Walmart might be tempted to think that because many lower-to-middle- income consumers use its service to buy products online and have the items shipped to their homes via a postal carrier, that these same shoppers will therefore use a home grocery delivery service in equal or similar numbers.

But the comparison is apples and oranges, so to speak. Why? Shopping for fresh food and groceries is a regular task and a very competitive enterprise. Most lower-to-middle income consumers shop at multiple stores, shop weekly ads, use coupons and look for the best deals. In contrast, ordering products, be it contact lenses, books, a television set or clothing, from for home shipment, which can actually be cheaper because there's often no sales tax on the items, is an irregular task that can be done after first comparing prices at brick-and-mortar stores.

Walmart's best strategy for the San Francisco Bay Area region is a smaller-format brick-and-mortar store approach, supplemented with as many supercenters of the smaller variety as it can gain approval for over the next few years.

What the retailer needs to do for starters is strike up a deal with the mayors and city councils' of the region's three biggest cities - San Jose, San Francisco and Oakland, like its done with Mayor Daley in Chicago, offering to focus on building and opening mostly smaller-format stores in exchange for getting approval for a few bigger supercenters. With municipal budgets in California so stretched, these cities are willing to listen, something they probably wouldn't have done five years ago when the region was booming and city budgets were flush with money.

Once Walmart has achieved a bit of critical mass in the San Francisco/San Jose Bay Area (eg: food and grocery sales market share) it's my analysis that perhaps then an online ordering and home grocery delivery service might make sense for the retailer. But until then, if Walmart tries it now, I don't think it will be anything to write home about.

- The Insider

Read 'The Insider's' past columns here


Anonymous said...

A few extra facts pertinent to this great post.

1/ This is a legacy of the Safeway/Tesco "Groceryworks" joint venture, which was dissolved when Tesco started work on Fresh & Easy (obviously). Tesco provided the software and process. I believe the software platform that Safeway uses is still based on the Tesco put into the joint venture (Tesco has redeveloped since); a google search of for the word Tesco used to return the copyright statement for the web pages!

2/ The UK subsidiary of wallmart (ASDA) already does home delivery, I believe they serve about 20 miles from each store (which still leaves many gaps). it's a competitive place, with all the majors offering it for a charge of about $4-$6 for a booked 1-2 hour slot (sometimes waived for large orders). (biggest in the world on UK volumes alone), Ocado (webvan-live newer startup), Sainsbury, Waitrose, Asda, and Morrison's expected to start soon. The hard discounters (Aldi, Lidl) dont offer it, and the Co-op/Somerfield only offer a "carry to home" service from some stores.

Fresh & Easy Buzz said...

Thanks for your comment Anon. April 9, 2011 5:11 PM

Regarding the Tesco-Safeway-Grocery Works connection, Safeway parted ways with Tesco on the venture many years before it decided to start up Fresh & Easy in the U.S. The relationship didn't last very long. We've written about the relationship elsewhere on the blog a few times. Most recently, for example, if you click on the story -December 22, 2010: Safeway Wants to Grow its Online-Home Delivery Grocery Business - And is 'Giving Away the Store' to Prove it - we have a summary of the history of the relationship under the "Safeway's cyber-grocery beginnings" sub-heading.

You're correct on the online-ordering grocery home delivery info for the UK, including the fact WMT's ASDA has a service. But I wouldn't go beyond that to make a comparison between the U.S. and the UK regarding the concept, except to say Walmart has experience in doing it by virtue of ASDA. Other than that, are two very different markets, two very different sets of circumstances.

And, of course, Morrison's just recently made a $50 million investment in online-home delivery service FreshDirect. Smart move I think. Great way to go to school on FD for Morrison's upcoming UK service launch. Also cheap way to get into the U.S. market in a minor way.

What do you think of the investment?

-The Insider

Anonymous said...

Regarding the Morrison's investment. I missed that article.

It's a smart move to get some process and systems from someone already in the business, and there aren't too many to choose from.

Regarding ASDA--I understand that ASDA's systems have a lot in common with the systems used in Wallmart stores (and commonality of store systems is a key point if the order is picked from store), so from a process and system standpoint Wallmart could start an ecommerce offering pretty quickly; the main barrier would be rich product data (photos, ingredients etc)--there are agencies that supply this in the UK.

Referencing back to the Safeway $15 new customer inducement: All the UK players are doing this as well, to grab new customers where the can. Home delivery covers a wider social spectrum and is still increasing (slowly), customers didn't tend to shop multi chains (fuel prices deter this), or, if they did, they would alternate between 2 or do an up or downmarket "fill in" (e. g. Marks and Spencers for a few "treats" with the rest from ASDA)

Home delivery is increasing primarily because fuel is so expensive (£1.30/l--almost $2, approx $10 per US gallon), delivery charges have stayed the same. The recent crop of phone apps has also increased the audience and moved it to a more "little and often" task.

Roger C. said...

I don't see a Wal-Mart home delivery service making much of an impact in San Jose or the Bay Area. We just have too many retail options when it comes to buying fresh food and groceries.

What are they going to do, beat Safeway on price and offer lower delivery charges? Even so, Safeway has been around years with home delivery and I doubt if its core users are going to switch for a small cost savings.

Also some of the most popular stores here are Whole Foods, Costco, Trader Joe's and independents like Mollie Stones and Lunardi's. I doubt Walmart can poach any of these customers with home delivery.

On gas prices, remember the price per gallon/liter is more than twice as much in the U.K. as it is in the U.S. Very few people in the Bay Area live more than a mile or so from at least two grocery stores.

James Sinclair said...

Walmart might do well in San Francisco, with many people who don't own cars, but dislike being gouged by their corner bodega.

Fresh & Easy Buzz said...

Thanks for the comment anon April 10, 2011 5:06 PM

The issue isn't really if Walmart can set up an online grocery ordering and home delivery service -it's really a piece of cake to do so these days. Plus Walmart already has much of the digital technology, along with thousands of SKUs of grocery items, set up on its site. Rather, it's if a Walmart home delivery service makes any sense in the metro San Jose area from a business segment standpoint. As my column suggests, I come down on the side that it doesn't make sense at this point in time. Of course, I could be wrong.

-The Insider