Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Media and Marketing: Wal-Mart Singles Night

"Wal-Mart's playbook has always found unusual ways to meet customers' needs. Many of the retailer's German stores host a singles night on Fridays. The events have increased sales and become such hits that Wal-Mart has trademarked the name "Singles Shopping" to deter copycats."

Media and Marketing: Wal-Marts in Germany Redefine The Term 'Checkout Aisle'
November 9, 2004; Page B1

DORTMUND, Germany -- On a stifling Friday evening, Andreas Semprich, a 35-year-old single father, decided to go looking for love. Or at least a date. He packed up his two-year-old son and headed to his local Wal-Mart.

Wal-Mart workers greeted him at the sprawling store's entrance with a glass of sparkling wine and freshly shucked oysters. They took his picture and tacked it on a singles bulletin board, along with his age, interests and the qualities he seeks in a prospective partner. Mr. Semprich grabbed a shopping cart outfitted with a bright-red bow denoting his unmarried status and hit the aisles.

"I first tried out discotheques, but that did not work," said Mr. Semprich. "First of all, when you see some of the women again in daylight, I sometimes almost fainted. No, this here is much better. It is a natural, relaxed atmosphere. And besides, I can also save money. The milk is cheaper than in any other store."
Welcome to Wal-Mart Stores Inc.'s latest meat market. The retail giant's Dortmund store launched its first singles shopping event in the fall last year, at the suggestion of two workers who thought it might help an unmarried bakery worker at the store who complained about being too old for discos and too proud for Internet dating. Now, every Friday night is singles night at the store, and the event plays out regularly at many of the 91 other German Wal-Marts.

Wal-Mart officials in Germany say they know of about 30 couples who found each other at a singles shopping night. In fact, the events have become such hits in Germany, increasing Friday night sales 25%, that Wal-Mart has trademarked the name "Singles Shopping" to deter copycats. And employees at the Dortmund store fight to work the Friday-evening shifts, says Martina Busse, Wal-Mart district manager.

It's vintage Wal-Mart: Cut-throat practices and rock-bottom prices aside, Wal-Mart's playbook has always found unusual ways to meet customers' needs, such as its longstanding policy of allowing hulking recreational vehicles to park overnight in the parking lots of its U.S. stores.

At the moment, Wal-Mart has no plans to have Singles Shopping nights in its U.S. stores. But on Nov. 13, representatives from the German operations, including the two people who came up with the idea, are scheduled to make a presentation on singles shopping to Wal-Mart executives at the company's traditional Saturday morning meeting. Regional and divisional managers for the U.S. will be there, and if they are impressed, they could recommend that stores in their territories consider holding their own singles events. Meanwhile, Wal-Mart divisions in Canada and Korea have contacted the German operations for more information.

From the earliest days, when founder Sam Walton held donkey rides in his stores' parking lots to draw traffic, Wal-Mart has prided itself on having a certain P.T. Barnum quality about it. Wal-Mart stores in China, for example, hold live fishing contests on the premises. In Korea, stores host a kind of bake-off, with variations on a popular dish, kimchee.

Many of the promotions bubble up from the store level and are adopted by other stores -- a practice that, for all its centralized control, Wal-Mart encourages. The famous Wal-Mart greeters came about in similar fashion. A worker at a Lousiana Wal-Mart decided to greet shoppers because she thought it would be more inviting. Sam Walton liked the idea so much that he implemented it chainwide.
As Wal-Mart forges into new territories abroad, where competition is fierce, it says it is more important than ever to figure out local tastes and customer attractions. Germany and Wal-Mart, for example, haven't exactly been a match made in heaven. After seven years and many mistakes, Wal-Mart is still losing money there. Wal-Mart has a relatively small presence in Germany, with less than 5% of the market, as it competes with several shrewd discounters such as Aldi, which offers low prices on a limited assortment of high-quality, private-label goods.

Until recently, Wal-Mart had been hamstrung by Germany's stringent operating laws that shuttered stores by 6 p.m. on weekdays and 4 p.m. on Saturdays. Restrictions have eased up in recent years, with many stores staying open until 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday. The retailer has also run up against strong unions and Germany's strict laws against pricing below cost, which have eroded some of its cost advantages.

The singles shopping nights are a way for Wal-Mart to stand apart from other German discounters and bring in new customers. "We have to distinguish ourselves, and we found a little personality doesn't hurt," says Bill Wertz, spokesman for Wal-Mart's international division.

The events weren't an immediate hit. At first, singles at the Dortmund store were reluctant to take a cart bedecked with a huge red ribbon announcing that they were on the prowl. So Wal-Mart tinkered with the formula, and carts with smaller bows were popular with many of the men. To create a more welcoming and relaxed atmosphere, Wal-Mart posted singles greeters at the doors with wine and hors d'oeuvres. A table displayed romance-themed and singles-oriented merchandise -- candles, wine, frozen dinners, DVDs.

By Christmas, the Friday events, held from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., were attracting 250 to 300 additional shoppers. To encourage mingling, the staff set up "flirt points" -- carefully appointed tables with free chocolate. Dortmund also started a singles bulletin board, three panels covered with photos and brief bios of singles from 18 to 76.

Hearing of the event's success, Wal-Mart's German headquarters, in Wuppertal, decided to give it a try nationally on Feb. 13. Now, Wal-Mart's 14 supercenters in Germany have a singles night almost every week, while smaller stores hold the event about once a month. Wuppertal employees get two or three e-mails a day from people asking where the nearest Wal-Mart is so they can check out the singles shopping nights, says Susanne Mueller, Wal-Mart's spokeswoman in Germany.

Ms. Busse, the district manager, gets a lot of phone calls, especially from older men, asking how the event works and what to wear. She suggests "casual, clean, free-time clothes." Some people ask for tips on their appearance: She tells them the hairdresser in the store offers haircuts and styling at a discount to singles-night participants.

Women who arrive in groups are advised to split up: Men can be leery of approaching a pack of women. Shoppers also are encouraged to fill out a lottery slip. The winner gets a €100 (about $130) candlelight dinner for two at a fancy, romantic hotel in the countryside.

Claudia, a 41-year-old divorcée, said she read about the event in the local newspaper and has meant to come by for weeks. "But today I put my foot down and drove her here," interrupts her 20-year-old son, Marco. The mother didn't want to give her last name. "I think this is great, especially for older people," her son adds, smiling at his mother as she blushes. Claudia added: "You know, I would never dare to meet anyone from the Internet or from an ad in the paper."

At the entrance, Karin Hardt, a 65-year-old retiree, and her 58-year-old friend, Gisela Kienast, looked at pictures on the singles bulletin board. They discover a 61-year-old man with silver hair and a nice smile. "He is my dream type," says Ms. Kienast and immediately fills out a data sheet on herself that will be passed on to him. She notices that her friend is smitten, too. "So what do we do now? Shall we fill out two sheets for him?" she asks.

As for Mr. Semprich, the 35-year-old single dad, he has started in on his weekly shopping, an insurance policy against going home empty-handed. Tonight, he has some luck in the fresh seafood aisle, where he exchanges phone numbers with a young mother of a six-year-old son.

Write to Ann Zimmerman at ann.zimmerman@wsj.com1 and Almut Schoenfeld at almut.schoenfeld@wsj.com2


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