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Where Will Walmart Be in 5 Years?

By James Brumley - Jan 14, 2021 at 10:16AM

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Walmart's top brass has finally figured out that just because they build it doesn't necessarily mean shoppers will come.

The Walmart ( WMT 1.08% ) of today may not seem too terribly different than the Walmart of five years ago. Sure, it's got a much bigger online presence now, second only to Amazon.com ( AMZN 1.11% ) in terms of e-commerce sales within the United States. The addition of curbside pickup service and subscription-based delivery offerings are nice perks, but it remains mostly a brick-and-mortar business.

So, on the surface, it doesn't look like things are going to be dramatically different for the retailer five years from now in 2026.

But take a close, careful look under the hood, and then take a big step back and look at the company from a distance. Now connect the dots. Walmart isn't going to be a mere retailer five years from now. It's slowly but surely morphing into a lifestyle company.

Man standing under  sunny blue sky looking into the distance with binoculars

Image source: Getty Images.

Free delivery is just the beginning

Lifestyle company is not a phrase you'll hear tossed around too much, but it's an appropriate description for Walmart nonetheless. Simply put, a lifestyle company aims to address the ongoing challenges of daily life so well that consumers don't think twice about tapping that organization for help.

There aren't many of these kinds of companies, but Amazon is one. It's not just a place to buy stuff online. It's in your television set or tablet, or perhaps sitting on a table in the form of a digital assistant. Customers can automate recurring purchases of certain goods they use over and over again using Amazon's technology. It may also be your grocer, or hook you up with a good handyman, or even a fashion advisor.

Walmart isn't there yet, but it's certainly moving in that direction.

Yes, the advent of Walmart+ is one of these steps. The benefits of the program are modest for now, with free shipping on all orders regardless of their size being the biggest draw at a price of $98 per year (or $12.95 per month). As a bonus, the retailer is able to deliver chilled or perishable groceries from most of its stores, offering something Amazon can't. For some goods in certain areas, same-day delivery is even an option.

It could take years for Walmart to sign on anywhere near the 126 million U.S. Prime members that Digital Commerce 360 estimates Amazon currently serves, and Walmart seems to understand it needs to give subscribers more than scan-and-go service at its stores and fuel discounts. Without saying exactly how, CEO Doug McMillon commented last month he'd like to see new perks added to Walmart+ in the future. But the tough part of the journey's begun -- the platform meant to keep people connected to the company is in place.

Walmart enters the healthcare fray

The big brick-and-mortar retailer is also reshaping healthcare. It's now an insurance agency, unveiling its Medicare plans in October, but it's also pushing into (albeit slowly) the healthcare delivery market. A handful of stand-alone health clinics are now in operation, mostly in the Atlanta area, and they're unabashedly branded with the Walmart name and logo.

They're also surprisingly robust clinics, providing services ranging from X-rays to dental care to optometry to counseling to, of course, help with minor injuries and colds.

The initiative doesn't inherently mean there's a Walmart-backed clinic coming to your town soon, or even by 2026. The company certainly hasn't slowed its interest on the primary care front in recent months though, suggesting it's forging ahead with the idea that the industry has room for Walmart-ized competition.

Embracing popular technologies

The in-store experience may be about to improve too.

It's only in a pilot program now, but the retailer's experiments with turning shoppers' smartphones into a tour guide of sorts while you browse the aisles is being well-received. While less touted, this new in-store tech will allow the company to collect more valuable consumer data.

Speaking of tech, on Monday of this week Walmart announced it was working with Ribbit Capital to build a new fintech outfit. Ribbit is a key backer of stock trading website Robinhood, and jointly the company hopes to create a new platform that meets the needs of their common customer bases. Although the exact numbers are fuzzy, a wide swath of Walmart's regular customers are considered underbanked or even unbanked, meaning they don't have the typical access to a bank that other consumers might. By fostering a stronger connection with these shoppers, they may be more likely to shop with Walmart in the future.

On stores' shelves too

For all the obvious upgrades Walmart is giving itself, though, there are just as many obscure ones.

For instance, in stores that sell them, a year ago the retailer added a surprisingly wide area of premium spirits and wines to their offerings, while also adding locally brewed beers to its mix. In 2019 the company acquired a wholesale beef operation. This was not just for greater control of its supply chain, but also so it could provide the sort of sustainability and quality transparency that consumers are increasingly demanding.

It's all a subtle hint that Walmart is now paying extra attention to what it puts on its shelves, responding to changing consumer expectations. Five years ago, it's unlikely the company or most of its customers would have even cared about premium alcohol or sustainable meats.

Poised to be a successful lifestyle company

This is all just a sampling of the evolution the retailer has undergone in just the past couple of years. More (although less pronounced) changes have been introduced. And much like the ones cited above, these changes would have been seemingly odd ideas for this particular company to embrace just five years back. Now they're not. Connect the dots. These are all part of a huge, cohesive plan to meet customers when and where they want to be met that will become much clearer five years from now.

Walmart's revenue and per-share earnings are both expected to grow though 2025.

Data source: Thomson Reuters. Chart by author.

It remains to be seen just how much additional growth Walmart might be able to create for itself by casting a wider net; analysts are modeling more of the same steady growth we've already seen all the way through 2025. What the analysts seem to be underestimating, however, is just how sticky Walmart's web is going to become now that more of its strategic "lifestyle" elements are falling into place. As such, the analyst crowd may be underestimating the retailer's actual growth potential.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis – even one of our own – helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.

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