Wal-Mart Is Still Outshined by Amazon Despite Spending Billions

  • Fourth-quarter e-commerce sales rose 8%, down from 10%
  • Retailer to spend $1.1 billion on web operations this year

Wal-Mart Woes Continue With Slowing Sales

After spending billions on its Web operations to take on rival Amazon.com Inc., the last thing Wal-Mart Stores Inc. wanted to tell investors was that online sales momentum was slowing. 

Yet the world’s biggest retailer said Thursday that e-commerce sales rose only 8 percent in the fourth quarter. That’s down from 10 percent in the third quarter and 16 percent in the second.

The retailer attributed the deceleration to increased competition in the U.K. as well as economic downturns in Brazil and China. As for its domestic e-commerce sales, Wal-Mart would only say that its U.S. online operations have grown faster than the companywide total. But with the retailer set to spend more than $1.1 billion this year on e-commerce, investors are getting impatient.

“Their eyes were very big, and you can’t necessarily blame them for Brazil or the U.K. or China, but they weren’t careful and conservative in their view of what e-commerce was going to do,” said Meredith Adler, an analyst with Barclays Plc. She said Wal-Mart isn’t currently making a profit online and hasn’t indicated when it will.

Meanwhile, Amazon said last month that its retail sales in the fourth quarter increased 20 percent to $33 billion. For all retailers, online sales grew 9 percent to $105 billion in the holiday period, according to the National Retail Federation. Wal-Mart doesn’t disclose the dollar amount of its online sales.

Trailing Amazon

Despite Wal-Mart’s spending, the company still is falling short of Amazon on price and selection, said Guru Hariharan, chief executive officer of research firm Boomerang Commerce. During the holidays, Amazon was able to beat Walmart.com in key areas like electronics, toys and housewares, and Target Corp. also sold items for cheaper in some categories, he said. And Amazon had a significantly bigger selection than Walmart.com in every category Boomerang tracked.

“Why would I ever go to Walmart.com and shop there when I have lower prices on Amazon and a much higher assortment on Amazon?” Hariharan said. “Wal-Mart has to do some soul searching and figure out what it stands for. They aren’t going to be able to compete on lowest price and biggest selection anymore with Amazon.”

One area Wal-Mart does have an advantage in is groceries, analysts said. The company has expanded its online grocery shopping to more than 150 locations in at least 20 markets in the U.S., letting customers order online and pick up at the store without leaving their cars.

“If there is one piece Walmart knows in the U.S., it is grocery, so I think that is a logical move forward,” said Robert Drbul, an analyst with Nomura Securities.

But other competitors aren’t far behind. Amazon is testing its own grocery delivery service, which may use drones, and Google may even enter the market with its self-driving cars, Hariharan said.

“Wal-Mart has a five- to 10-year advantage in grocery,” he said. “They really need to double down on that because competing with Amazon on price is proving to be a bad idea.”