Nonfoods Talk: A Thanksgiving tale

Trying to buy a computer at Wal-Mart on Thanksgiving night did not create a happy ending to the holiday for my family.

By Seth Mendelson

Thanksgiving dinner is usually a joyous occasion at my home. This year was no exception. We had a number of family members over the house and, may I say, the turkey was just right; a little well done, with all the proper trimmings. The pumpkin pie was as good as ever.

After dinner, we all got into an interesting discussion about the need for kids owning computers and what age was appropriate for someone to get his or her first computer. One thing led to another and by the time we were done cleaning the dishes off the table and putting the leftovers in the refrigerator my 12-year-old son had me convinced that we had to get him his own laptop…now.

Yes, it seems he was well aware that our neighborhood Wal-Mart, about five miles from my house, was open on Thanksgiving and would be open all night in preparation for Black Friday. So instead of waiting until the next morning and dealing with the crowds of Black Friday, the Mendelson family trudged off to Wal-Mart for a late night adventure and, hopefully, a new computer.

Well, we were half satisfied at the end of the night. We did have an interesting adventure, being one of the few consumers at a retail store on Thanksgiving night. Unfortunately, the unique journey of visiting a store almost immediately after carving and eating the turkey took a turn for the worse once our search for a new laptop began in earnest.

Now I understand what Wal-Mart means for American retailing and how the giant chain has done a superb job of merging value and convenience to attract more and more consumers through its doors. And, there is no better retailer in the country at offering a broad array of products at the right price points.

But in the computer category at least—and on this Thanksgiving night—Wal-Mart did not get very good reviews from our family. In fact, the offering at the store was weak, the service virtually non-existent despite a number of employees milling around the area and the in-store information about computers confusing.

Yet, I think I am a reasonable person. So I decided to go back to the same Wal-Mart a couple of days later, this time on a Sunday, to see if I had simply picked a bad time. Unfortunately, the computer section was in no better shape and there were even fewer store employees around to help.

In the end, Wal-Mart had a great opportunity to sell my family a computer and a couple of software programs needed to operate the machine. My guess is I would have put down close to $900 on these purchases and I have to believe that would have translated into a nice incremental profit for the chain.

But the Achilles’ heel of Wal-Mart showed its ugly head once more. The chain may be the biggest and most profitable retail operation in the country—and it has done a marvelous job of merchandising itself—but it still makes mistakes and those mistakes must be noticed by all retailers who want to compete against it and survive its powerful punch.

Wal-Mart does a great job creating the perception that it is the lowest-price retailer in the country and in many categories that is true. But when the pedal hits the metal or the rubber hits the road, Wal-Mart, like any other retailer, has to meet consumer needs.

On that relatively warm Thanksgiving night in suburban New Jersey, Wal-Mart failed to offer a stress-free, uncomplicated shopping experience to the Mendelson family. On Sunday, after my second visit to Wal-Mart, we went to Costco and purchased a new Hewlett-Packard laptop for my son. We also purchased Microsoft Office and two computer games. The bill came to nearly $900, but we felt after reading the in-store material and even talking to a store employee that it was the right decision.

Seth Mendelson can be reached at 212-979-4879 or at smendelson@groceryheadquarters.com.

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