Homeless in Bentonville

The Robin ReportWill all due apologies to Bob Dylan:

“Oh, Mr. Sam, can this really be the end,
To be stuck inside of Bentonville
With the home furnishings blues again.”

Whoever would have thought it? The biggest big box of them all. The grand, high falutin’ retailer of the world. The mother of all megastores. And they don’t have a clue what to do about their home business.

What’s a Walmart (WMT) to do?

I have the utmost respect for Walmart. They are an amazing operation and they’ve changed not only the retailing world, but also the entire world by their very presence.

Most vendors will tell you they are a stand-up operation: Tough negotiators upfront but never abusive or prone to cheap chargeback tricks.

And they’ve cleaned up their public image a whole lot over the past few years, presenting a much more politically correct front to the world.
I even think Sam’s Cola isn’t bad.

But when it comes to their home furnishings departments, the boys from Bentonville are pretty much totally lost. They have stumbled this way and that, steered up, gone back down, tried national brands, house brands, no brands and Brand X.
And none of it has worked very well.

Some of what’s going on in Walmart home reflects what’s going on in Walmart fashion. A consistent inconsistency has set in and the store just can’t decide what it wants to be.

The problem with home is that, unlike in apparel where some of their key competitors have also stumbled around, many of the other players in this retail space have had their home acts together.

Target, with the occasional misstep, has gotten this cheap chic thing down pretty pat in home and the customer knows what to expect when she shops there.

Kmart (SHLD), when it was still a retailer, built its home department around Martha Stewart and it was an enormously successful endeavor.
Kohl’s (KSS) has built a strong stable of private brands and they seemingly have a sixth sense about when to cycle out of one and bring in something new to the mix.

JCPenney (JCP) has one of the strongest core businesses anywhere in home and even if some of its recent efforts have been less than terrific, it can live off its home reputation for at least another generation.

The Robin ReportBed Bath & Beyond (BBBY) is a brilliant item merchant and while its soft home mix doesn’t measure up to the Beyond side of the store, it makes up for it with a broad selection and plenty of coupons.

Even Macy’s (M) is pulling it off, balancing its ever-improving private labels with the Ralph and Calvin crowd.
But Walmart? Ask any home furnishings shopper and after they say something about low prices, you pretty much get a blank stare.
What brands do they carry? I don’t know.

What products are they really known for? I don’t know.

Can I get some cool designs there? I don’t know.

Which way is the ladies room? Right past the blankets.

Walmart seems to be suffering from an assortment of maladies. It has percale paranoia about what Target (TGT) is doing in bedding. It has electrics envy when it comes to Bed Bath’s small appliance mix. And it’s got a bad case of low-end fever over the dollar store’s opening price point cookware and tabletop.

What’s a Walmart to do indeed?

First and foremost, Walmart has to pick a treatment method and stick to it. If it’s going to choose to go with a collection of down-cycled national brands, as it did once with Springmaid, it has to remain with them and make them the enduring cornerstones of the department.
If, instead, it wants to build its own brands, like Canopy, it really has to get behind them and make them true brands, not labels.
And if it feels it needs a core personality as an umbrella for its total home assortment, it needs an A-list name, not some second-round dropout from Dancing With The Stars.

What makes all of this even more difficult to understand is that in fact Walmart already has the vehicle in place to finally get its home department up to par.

Several years ago Walmart licensed the Better Homes and Gardens name for home assortment and today it’s a solid part of the mix. But it can be so, so much more.

Walmart needs it bad. But that’s not all.

Still apologizing, I’ll leave it to Bob again to take us out:

“Your merchant just knows what you need.
But I know what you want.”

Warren Shoulberg is a business journalist who has reported on the home furnishing market for a long, long time. He is editorial director for Home Textiles Today and Gifts and Decorative Accessories magazines.

Warren Shoulberg About Warren Shoulberg

Warren Shoulberg is editorial director of several home furnishings magazines and has been reporting on the home business for a long time. He is currently working on his next book, Stupid Business.