Buy Online, Pay at a Store -- a Novel Pathway to Building Brand Loyalty?

Walmart's Idea Could Lead to a Fresh Role for Brick and Mortar

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Walmart is in the news, accused of having bribed Mexican officials, which would be a violation of U.S. law and its own standards. If true, it's something that no business should emulate. But then, the company is also rolling out a customer program that every CMO should explore and consider copying, especially fellow retailers.

The company provides a "Pay With Cash" button on its website, so that customers can order merchandise and then choose a physical store where they can go to pay for it. This might seem nutty, but many Walmart customers live paycheck-to-paycheck, and something like 85% of them pay with cash or debit cards. The program will give such "underbanked" folks the chance to shop online.

But there is more. Intentional or not, this is a bigger idea than just trying to give people another way to pay for merchandise. Here are three reasons why:

It flips the "window-shopping" curse of brick-and-mortar retailing. Both RadioShack and Best Buy have been severely hurt by people using their stores as vast showrooms for merchandise that then gets bought online from whatever brand will sell it at the lowest price. The Walmart cash program turns this phenomenon on its head and raises the potential for stores to do lot more to reclaim their status as destinations for shoppers. For instance, clothes ordered online could be tried on and fitted on the spot before being bought. Accessories could be suggested and bundled at special prices. What about repairs or service overall? Walmart could make its stores the places where customer relationships get more meaning and purpose. So could its competitors.

It more closely attaches cost and value. I have often wondered whether easy or automatic payments make it harder for consumers to judge whether they're getting their money's worth. Studies on political issues, such as a military draft, have shown that people are far more vested in a subject if there's a potential or real cost to them. After all, one of the best tools for teaching children the value of money has been the piggybank, many of which have to be literally sacrificed in order for their owners to make a purchase. Paying with cash has so many tangible qualities that I bet consumers who buy that way are more vested in their purchases, which might heighten expectations but also deepen their brand relationships. So is Walmart forging closer customer relationships by basing them on cash transactions? What might this mean for other brands?

It suggests the possibility of holistic marketing. By that I mean brands taking responsibility for entire consumers' well being, not just giving them a return for a sliver of their time or money. How many people go into onerous credit-card debt to buy big-ticket items? What about the obesity to which somewhat innocent individual portions contribute? Think corporate responsibility, like on the environment or community well-being, only writ "small" for individuals and their lifestyles. Could Walmart's cash-only practice allow it to make sure its customers aren't in over their heads and, by doing so, help ensure that they stay better and more committed? I don't think this is what they're doing on purpose, but sometimes the best outcomes are unanticipated. Think of what a brand might do if it took such holistic concern seriously: Better, more educational financing schemes when financing is necessary; more usage information about food beyond ingredients lists or exhortations to drink responsibly; co-promotions between brands that contribute to more sustainable lifestyles.

I don't have access to the brain trust at Walmart, so I don't know if it's just common sense or a new idea for them. But the "Pay With Cash" program suggests a lot of novel ways of looking at customer relationships, both online and offline. So who cares why they're doing it? Maybe it could suggest something new for you?

JONATHAN SALEM BASKIN is president of Baskin Associates, a marketing-decisions consultancy, and author of the just published "Tell The Truth." You can follow him on Twitter: @jonathansalem.
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