Kaarin Vembar is obsessed with the luxury and apparel markets. She also has a sassy mouth so her managing editor decided to give her a column in an attempt to harness insight for readers. Kaarin can be reached at [email protected].
Retailers. They're just like us. They go on Instagram one too many times, get antsy and decide their daily life needs more energy. But instead of getting bangs or buying a bunch of ill-advised hats, sometimes a billion-dollar company buys a handful of direct-to-consumer brands.
Because, let's be real, that's exactly what you would do if you had Walmart's bank account.
Although Walmart has a long history of innovation, there was a condensed period of time from around 2017 to 2019 where it felt like the company was on a serious DTC shopping spree. All of these smaller companies were getting snapped up, in a way that felt a bit slap-dash.
For me personally, the height of confusion regarding Walmart's e-commerce strategy was when it purchased indie darling ModCloth. The apparel line was known for its adorkable brand and thoughtful community and suddenly it was part of this ubiquitous company. It was apparel branding whiplash. What was Walmart doing? Why was it going steady with its complete romcom opposite? What could become of Walmart pairing with such weird partners?
A bunch of investments that never panned out, that's what.
There's something else to consider, though: that Walmart knows exactly what it is doing. Instead of playing out what appeared to be an ill-advised hand, the retailer may have known from the jump that it wasn't going to keep some of these brands for the long haul.
It's a perspective that didn't occur to me until Go Global, the new owner of ModCloth, mentioned that it was perhaps part of a larger play to learn about different sectors of e-commerce.
"Walmart wanted to better understand the e-commerce space as they were seeing their competitors Amazon and Alibaba grow at a faster pace," Go Global founder and Managing Director Jeff Streader said in an earlier interview with Retail Dive. "Jet, Bonobos, ModCloth were really about their efforts to more clearly understand the opportunity at [a] digitally native mono-channel brand. They supported the business financially and did not want to 'Walmart-ize' these companies, but wanted to observe."
So the spending spree may have been purposeful in order to absorb all the information that could possibly be gained from a digitally native upstart. (Although, that's a lot of money to pour into SWOT analysis. The company paid an unprecedented $3 billion for e-commerce startup Jet in 2016 and acquired outdoor retailer Moosejaw for $51 million in 2017. The price tag for ModCloth wasn't publicly announced.) Walmart may be looking so many steps ahead that we can't keep up. Or, the retailer could have just purchased a bunch of things and some of them panned out and some didn't.
Whatever the larger business plan at play, below are a handful of Walmart's odd acquisitions, most of which were at one point direct-to-consumer companies. It's not a complete list. This is a story that is still playing out.
Did you know that Walmart owns Art.com? Wait, you don't immediately associate a mass retailer with the existential search for life's meaning via watercolors? I don't understand.
I asked my friend Bruce about his knowledge of Art.com because he tends to have a baseline knowledge of most stores, including e-commerce. He asked the following questions in short succession, "Wait, is it art that you hang on the wall, or did they buy the domain for Art Garfunkel? Is everything on black velvet? Is it online right now?"
Walmart acquired Art.com's assets back in 2018 because the company pointed out, "the 'wall' is critical to completing the home." Which, to be fair, is sound logic.
Back in 2018, Walmart purchased intimates company Bare Necessities. Even though the brand name will inevitably evoke the hit jam by Baloo the Bear, this was a fortuitous move. At the time of acquisition, the entire underwear game was on the precipice of changing because a little company called Vicky Hush Hush (i.e. Victoria's Secret) was in the middle of a downward spiral.
Turns out, the leadership at Vicky Hush Hush was not reading the room. The company's inability to evolve has left open the possibility of other retailers taking market share. Especially those who can offer decent products at fair prices.
Andy Dunn, founder of Bonobos, stepped down as CEO of the men's apparel brand in the fall of 2018, though he continued to oversee Walmart's digital consumer brands. Bonobos was acquired by Walmart for $310 million in 2017, and after Dunn's departure from the CEO role, his self-declared, culturally inappropriate title was corporate "Spirit Animal." (At press time it was still listed that way on his LinkedIn page.)
All of this is relevant because Dunn was a high-profile champion for the term digitally native vertical brand (or DNVB), which basically means a company that was "born" online and is direct to consumer (and may ultimately refer to the ethos of a brand's storytelling and dedicated customer service, but I will let the true retail nerds argue about that).
In other words, this was THE GUY. The guy that was the bet on retail's future. He was also the guy that was at Walmart for a couple years and then left.
In February, Walmart officially discontinued its Jet Black text-based concierge service for members in New York City. When the service launched, it was an experiment for the company, but never expanded past the New York market.
The service showed some cracks in the fall of 2019 when it changed its leadership from former CEO Jenny Fleiss (who was co-founder of Rent the Runway), to Nate Faust, who was serving as senior vice president of supply chain and logistics with Walmart's e-commerce unit.
At the time, Bloomberg reported that the brand was losing somewhere around $10,000 on each of its members annually. If you can line up all your members and give them each $5,000 and still save the company money, you may have a problem.
ModCloth is an apparel brand that had a serious following for its vintage-style apparel in modern fabrics. When Walmart bought the brand it took it into some new and interesting directions, including opening brick-and-mortar "fitshop" stores and starting an online outlet store with discounted items. Those initiatives will be going away under its new ownership, but brand loyalists may not mind.
Similar to your dad's mid-life crisis — when he made the decision that a sports car, motorcycle or boat was a fantastic idea — Walmart needed to prove that it was still hip. It acquired the video streaming service Vudu. A company spokesperson later relayed that the service was installed on more than 100 million devices in the U.S. even though most of us say, "huh?" when asked if we want to watch something on Vudu.
But rumors have circulated that the company is considering a sale to focus more on its core offerings. As recently as last week, the company was reportedly in talks with NBCUniversal to acquire the streaming service. DAD. You are so. Embarrassing.