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Millennials' love-hate relationship with Walmart

This may surprise you: “Two-thirds of Americans between the ages of 20 and 35 have shopped at Walmart in the last month.” That’s according to Walmart Chief Merchant, Stephen Bratspies. On an investor phone call just two weeks ago, Bratspies also explained that millennials are more likely to shop at Walmart than Americans of any other age group.1

Millennials are sending mixed messages about Walmart.

While millennials may shop there frequently, how they feel about the retailer is up for debate.  In a 2014 survey, millennials called Walmart a “least favorite,” citing complaints about employee attitude, poor product quality, and the company’s treatment of its workers.2 Yet just a year later, millennials ranked Walmart as a top 10 favorite in brand loyalty and product quality—alongside expected faves like Apple, Google, Nike, and Coca-Cola.3

When it comes to Walmart, there seems to be a disconnect between millennials’ hearts and wallets. For example, millennials recommend Target over Walmart in 24 of 25 merchandise categories, from apparel to electronics to personal care products. But when it comes to putting their money where their mouth is, millennials confess that Walmart is where they go most often for products in 20 of those same 25 categories.4

Has Walmart somehow cracked the code to capturing millennial shoppers, despite their feelings about the retailer? In short, yes. Walmart has certainly made many operational and product decisions that appeal to millennials, but we believe there are two simple ways Walmart has positioned itself to gain the wallet-share of America’s largest generation.

Brand Clarity

Walmart is crystal clear about what it offers its customers. The retailer’s brand promise is embodied in its tagline, “Save Money. Live Better.” Examine any Walmart ad and find phrases like “Always low prices” or “Low prices every day.” Walmart’s brand message is simple and consistent; they’re not trying to be subtle or clever. As marketers we would do well to note that Walmart is winning millennials with honest, direct, and uncluttered messaging.

For millennials, that message isn’t just clear, it’s also hyper-relevant. Walmart has positioned itself as the everyday relief for a very real millennial pain: lack of money. “[Millennials] are the most value-driven generation that we’ve seen in my lifetime,” Bratspies said. In a recent survey of retailers nationwide, millennials ranked “Value for the dollar” as the #1 reason they’re impressed by an in-store retail experience.5 At this cash-strapped time of their lives, Walmart wins with a communications strategy that’s laser-focused on solving one of millennials’ very real pains.

Omnipresent Retail

Millennials are omnichannel shoppers, seeing little difference between brick-and-mortar and click-to-order. “As millennials become time-crunched with relationships and kids coming along, it’s opening up a strong need for them to have a one-stop shop,” said Walmart CMO Stephen Quinn.6

Walmart watched smartphone penetration among millennials jump from 52% in 2011 to 85% in 2014,7 inspiring the traditional retailer to go mobile. “[Walmart] figured out the importance and came up with their own app,” said comScore co-founder Gian Fulgoni. Today that app is ranked by comScore as the #3 app in mobile retail traffic, behind only Amazon and eBay.8

Fast, easy, and any way you like it.

Walmart’s app is a success because it fits seamlessly into millennials always-connected lives. It allows users to shop the in-store and web catalogs, compare prices, purchase, and select any delivery option from home to in-store pickup. Walmart wins with millennials by using its app to position itself as a go-to retailer that is available anytime, anywhere this on-the-go generation wants.

The Takeaway

Walmart’s success with millennials is admittedly a little confusing. On the one hand, we know millennials are selective shoppers, carefully curating the products they buy and willingly paying top dollar for that perfect pair of sustainably made shoes from a local artisan. This is not a space in which Walmart plays well. But on the other hand, the financial reality of most millennials’ lives means that they also just need cheap toilet paper, a gallon of milk, and a pair of socks—while shopping from their mobile on the sofa.
Walmart has won with millennials because it taps into simple, core truths that this generation responds to: Keep it simple, give me top value for my dollar, and meet me where wherever I am.