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Why Wal-Mart Is Worried About Amazon

The big retailer brings in tech help to juice online sales
Why Wal-Mart Is Worried About Amazon
Photograph by Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Five years ago, the world’s largest retail chain didn’t have to worry much about the world’s largest online mall. Only about a quarter of Wal-Mart Stores customers shopped at Amazon.com, according to data from researcher Kantar Retail. Today, however, half of Wal-Mart customers say they’ve shopped at both merchants. That’s leaving the mega-retailer—which long ago bested local brick-and-mortar merchandise stores and supermarkets across America—with a massive online competitor that is too tough to ignore.

Threatening Wal-Mart’s dominance are two trends: The discounter’s traditional customers—bargain hunters making less than $50,000 a year—are getting more tech-savvy, and more-affluent shoppers who began frequenting Wal-Mart during the recession are returning to Amazon as their finances improve. Amazon has moved into merchandise categories that Wal-Mart traditionally has sold, from diapers to vacuum cleaner bags. In its last fiscal year, Amazon posted 41 percent revenue growth, to $48.1 billion, vs. 8 percent at Wal-Mart. The chain’s 2011 online sales amounted to less than 2 percent of its $264 billion in U.S. revenue, says Kantar. “Amazon is always in our sights,” says Jeremy King, chief technology officer at the retailer’s @ WalmartLabs skunkworks in Silicon Valley. “My biggest issue is playing a catch-up game.”