Wal-Mart seems intent on steering product marketers to use its proprietary RetailLink scanner data, which it believes are more timely, accurate and complete than third-party offerings. If Wal-Mart can give suppliers better data, the thinking goes, then suppliers will do a better job of working with the chain to keep shelves stocked with the optimal array of merchandise. Meanwhile, rivals such as Kmart Corp. won't have access to the Wal-Mart scanner data that Information Resources Inc. and ACNielsen had been aggregating and selling. That's what they call a win-win in Bentonville, Ark.
To be sure, Wal-Mart's power is daunting-and at times overplayed. We're uncomfortable, for example, when Wal-Mart becomes the arbiter of morality, causing record labels to alter CDs or tone down covers to get on shelves.
But if Wal-Mart's data shift turns out to help suppliers sell more efficiently-even if it messes up the data-sharing scheme that vendors and retailers have come to live by-so be it. Rivals will just have to work harder to compete against a retailer that does so many things right.
Wal-Mart is the agent of consumers, continually pressing for the best deal. That's good for the economy: Wal-Mart gives suppliers a high-volume incentive to get lean and mean. Survival of the fittest lives on the shelves of Wal-Mart. With its proprietary data, the retailer appears to offer a tool that can help suppliers succeed.