Who Really Shops at Walmart?

Who Really Shops at Walmart?

I hear this phrase a lot: “that won’t work for the Walmart shopper.” It’s usually used to indicate that something is too upscale, looks too nice or is designed too well.

Here’s the strategic problem with that statement: Walmart has 91% household penetration, meaning that almost all of the US goes into a Walmart at least one time per year and buys a product. This means that anytime someone says to you “that’s not for a Walmart shopper” they are actually saying “that won’t work for 91% of Americans” and no one would say this because no one would presume to know what 91% of Americans would or would not like. If you don’t like that % stat, then how about the stat of 140 million people shop in a Walmart store each week—that’s 76% of Americans 18+. America shops at Walmart.

“Americans won’t like that” is not what people mean when they say, “that won’t work for the Walmart shopper.” They are not making a strategic statement, they are making an aesthetic statement—and perhaps even an ethical one. Here’s why…

The Stereotypical Shopper

People have a stereotype about who shops at Walmart. Actually, we have stereotypes for all kinds of shoppers everywhere. Think about who shops at Whole Foods or Dollar General or Trader Joe’s or Aldi. A quick image comes into the mind based on our impressions of the brand and our experience in the store—this is our stereotype of the store. The problem is, these stereotypes keep us locked into a mental framework, and they keep us making the same kind of decisions that everyone else is making. Doing what everyone else is doing is not a good strategy.

The stereotype of Walmart comes from the distant past, negative pop culture references, or the people you see on that mean-spirited site People of Walmart. All of it adds up to some imaginary character who is lower income, less educated, and doesn’t care at all about personal appearance; a person who doesn’t care which products they buy as long as they are cheap cheap cheap.
The Stereotypical Strategy

When we think this way about Walmart—or any other retailer for that matter—then it causes us to make a set of decisions about the way we brand and market our products. We think less about quality and only about price. We think less about design and only about price. We think less about “unimportant” things like the look and feel of the product, its packaging and the overall aesthetic enjoyment of it. We can easily convince ourselves that these are not what you care about when you are shopping on a budget.

But our make-up as people is not determined by the contents of our bank account as though our income determines how active certain elements of our physiology is. It is a ridiculous thought that someone making $30,000 a year doesn’t like something beautiful as much as someone making $100,000 and someone making $1,000,000 has an even further expanded anterior insula—“the most important part of the brain for aesthetic appraisal” according to a Scientific American article on the topic of neuro-aesthetics.

The article goes on to point out there is probably not a true “art appreciation” portion of the brain:

It is unlikely that there are brain systems specific to the appreciation of artworks; instead, there are general aesthetic systems that determine how appealing an object is, be that a piece of cake or a piece of music.

To think that our socioeconomic status causes us either to like or to dislike well-designed packaging or thoughtfully made products or sustainable manufacturing practices has no basis in science or reality.
What it does have is a basis in bias.

A Basis In Bias

Walmart started out as a retailer trying to bring name brands into rural markets and so they located their distribution centers in C & D counties. These smaller, mostly rural counties tended to be populated with lower income, lower educated individuals, and they were primarily located in the Southeast. So, there developed an impression about the company and who shopped there. This was reinforced by the folksy demeanor of Sam Walton and his Ford pick-up truck.
Fast-forward to today and we have decades of confirmation bias used to reinforce a stereotype that does not have any basis in reality. Americans of all ages, all backgrounds, all bank accounts, all tastes, and orientations shop at the mass retailer—and those same people also shop Target and Trader Joe’s, they carry iPhones and watch Netflix. They look like America, which is to say that they don’t look anyway in general but look every way in particular.

What We Got Wrong

Does this mean that the “People of Walmart” got it wrong? No. They are posting photographs of actual people inside of a real store, but those photographs could be taken in any mass, club, drug or grocery store in America. They could be taken on any American street or inside of any company, school, bank, gym, library or park. People of Walmart is actually the People of Every Retailer or the People of America. That’s what it gets wrong.

Also, what is wrong is when we think that we can cut corners and make our products lower quality or our marketing less engaging for people below an economic threshold. It is wrong when we think that we only need to add value to the lives of people who have money or are more educated or more beautiful. These are value judgments and do not reflect the values of the people that I hear saying it. It’s become both a shorthand phrase we say and an unexamined way that we operate—but it is an approach with some unintended consequences.

When we intentionally under design lower priced items, we are communicating something about how we see the world and what we think about people. We are communicating our biases and beliefs about people and what they value. I believe if we stopped and examined these decisions, then we would change our approach, which would change our businesses for the better. Imagine if every product were well crafted and well designed—not in a frivolous way, but truly designed well so that it worked exactly the way you wanted and looked amazing doing it.

There’s a great Shaker quote, which conveys exactly the point I’m trying to make. The Shaker Communities are people who surrendered their worldly possessions when they joined their particular group, which means they are made up entirely of people who have now found themselves at the bottom of the economic ladder. But you wouldn’t know it to read their philosophy on making the objects they surrounded themselves with…

Do not make anything unless it is both necessary and useful, but if it is both necessary and useful, then do not hesitate to make it beautiful.

Imagine operating in a way where everything added value to people’s lives and delighted everyone who bought and used it. That’s not utopia, that’s good business. So, the next time you hear the phrase “…that’s not for the Walmart (or any other) shopper” and the goal seems to be to “dumb it down” for the market, try pushing instead toward necessary, useful and beautiful.