Wal-Mart’s purchase of Jet reflects a stubborn transition

The acquisition of Jet by Wal-Mart is intended to help both companies compete with Amazon. Employees packed boxes for shipping in December at a warehouse in Swedesboro, N.J.
The acquisition of Jet by Wal-Mart is intended to help both companies compete with Amazon. Employees packed boxes for shipping in December at a warehouse in Swedesboro, N.J. NYT

Traditional retailers have spent more than a decade and billions of dollars trying to transform their brick-and-mortar businesses for the online shopper. Yet Amazon and other digital upstarts continue to lap them.

Now Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer and the dominant player of big-box stores, is turning to someone else’s technology and talent. On Monday, the company announced it was buying Jet, the year-old online bulk retailer, for $3.3 billion, the largest deal ever for an e-commerce company.

The purchase, and a shuffling in the executive ranks that comes with it, are Wal-Mart’s clearest acknowledgments yet that its online strategy is not working. It also sends a strong message to the rest of the consumer and retail industry: When it comes to competing against Amazon, not even the mightiest brick-and-mortar stores can go at it alone.

“The other retailers are going to be looking up to it and saying, ‘You know, absolutely, we’ve been failing at doing this,’ ” said Jharonne Martis, a retail analyst at Thomson Reuters. “Bringing in an expert might be the key to it.”

Overall, Wal-Mart’s e-commerce sales have stalled. The online business grew just 7 percent last quarter, a number that Doug McMillon, the company’s president and chief executive, acknowledged at the time was “too slow.” Most recently, the company has focused much of its online strategy on expanding its curbside grocery pickup business.

Jet is perhaps best known for an algorithm that encourages bulk buying, an area where has fallen short and could energize its sagging online growth.

Wal-Mart said Jet offered it access to “urban and millennial customers,” two groups that the retailer’s large rural footprint has been slow to attract.

Jet says it uses a complex formula to offer items 10 to 15 percent less than competitors by adjusting prices based on the quantity of products bought at once. The company relies heavily on suppliers, and Wal-Mart offers more pricing power and potentially better distribution operations through its vast network of warehouses across the country.

Still, the $3.3 billion figure is eye-popping, given that started selling products barely a year ago.

Wal-Mart is not valuing solely based on traditional metrics like profitability, which the start-up does not have. The retailer is spending billions in cash and stock in large part for something — or someone — else: Marc Lore.

Lore, an e-commerce entrepreneur who started, is seen as one of the few executives who can help put a dent in Amazon’s edge.

Lore, 46, will take over responsibility for in the United States and will continue running Jet, which will operate separately.

Wal-Mart said that while it would incorporate some of Jet’s ideas and talent into, Jet would remain a separate brand. Yet both sites will continue to face a daunting reality: continues to wallop the competition.

Amazon does more business online than any other retailer, yet still reports double-digit growth. In 2015, Amazon reported that net product sales rose 13 percent to $79.3 billion, while Wal-Mart reported that global annual e-commerce revenue had risen 12 percent, to $13.7 billion, in its latest fiscal year.

For Wal-Mart, buying Jet may not be about beating Amazon at its own game, according to Charlie O’Shea, the lead retail analyst for Moody’s.

“We view this as a race for second,” O’Shea said. “Amazon’s lead is so great that it’s going to be virtually impossible to catch them, but you can compete with them.”