Wal-Mart leaving nothing to chance in Black Friday test

November 18, 2014, 10:28 PM UTC
Inside A Wal-Mart Store Ahead Off Earns
Photograph by Andrew Harrer — Bloomberg/Getty Images

Last week, Wal-Mart Stores (WMT) reported its first U.S. comparable sales gain in nearly two years, eking out a 0.5% increase in the third quarter, helped by aggressive pricing and stronger e-commerce.

But the real test of its U.S. comeback is just around the corner with its Black Friday promotions, which are a notch or three more aggressive than they were last year.

At a media event at a Walmart store in North Bergen, N.J., company executives announced the retailer was starting its Black Friday deals on Nov. 21, a full week ahead of the actual day itself, with double the number of items on sale as a similar event last year, its latest move to leave no shopper money on the table in what is already a brutally promotional holiday season.

Wal-Mart has forecast U.S. comparable sales would grow 1% (unchanged, at the low end of the forecast) at most in the holiday quarter, which runs from November to January. So it knows it will have to fight hard for every sale.

The retailer is facing off with rivals ranging from a resurgent Target (TGT) to an aggressive Amazon.com (AMZN) to Best Buy (BBY), all of which also want to win the season.

“We are cautiously optimistic that if we can keep doing what we’re doing—which is seeing some improved trends in traffic—that translates into some decent sales,” Walmart U.S. CEO Greg Foran, told reporters at the store. He took over the $280-billion-a-year U.S. division in August, making the holiday season his first major test in his new job.

Here is a summary of the steps Wal-Mart is taking to make sure it reaches its goal.

1. More deals, earlier, and spread throughout a longer period

Just as it did with many more “rollbacks” (Walmart speak for discounts) in its early November sales, Wal-Mart has doubled the number of items included in its pre-Black Friday sale.

“It used to be called Black Friday, then it became Thursday, now it’s a week long,” said Walmart U.S. chief merchant Duncan Mac Naughton said last week. “Maybe we should just call it November.”

That takes us to the next big thing Wal-Mart is doing this season.

2. Price matching

Wal-Mart said it would match competitors prices on select pre-Black Friday deals. But more broadly, the retailer has told the managers of its U.S. stores that they can match prices with Amazon.com and other online retailers. The directive formalizes what thousands of stores were already doing.

“About half of the stores were doing it anyway,” Foran said on a call with media last week.

3. Offering more merchandise online

Wal-Mart has increased the assortment of merchandise available on its web site by 1 million items to 7 million, seeking to protect its turf from Amazon. And it has bought items in sufficient quantities to avoid out-of-stocks.

Wal-Mart is “buying deep and buying the right products,” said Michael Bender, Wal-Mart’s operations chief for global e-commerce.

4. More staffed cash registers

Wal-Mart will staff more cash registers than ever this holiday season at peak times in a bid to address a big, chronic customer complaint: long waits in checkout lines that give customers a reason to just walk out.

“We’re going to really obsess with customer service this holiday,” Foran said on Tuesday. That includes faster service at the register.

5. Using its stores to fuel e-commerce

Wal-Mart’s ability to offer “order online, pick up in store,” which is further along than it was last year, can give it an edge over pure-play e-retailers since shoppers can come by until stores close on Christmas Eve, giving last-minute, panicked customers an extra day to shop there that they wouldn’t have with Amazon.