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Can Walmart Become Your Favorite Online Shopping Destination?

America’s biggest retailer is coming for your closet.

A Walmart store sign.
Walmart is America’s biggest retailer.
Photo: Justin Sullivan

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In mid-March, ModCloth, a website known for its inclusive sizing, loyal fanbase, and sweet vintage-inspired dresses, sold to America’s biggest corporation.

Its community was not universally receptive to the news that Walmart had entered the picture, to understate the matter. “I’ve loved everything I’ve bought from ModCloth, including my wedding attire, and I will not support your business any longer,” wrote one Instagram commenter on the brand’s announcement post. “You sold out and you know it,” typed another.

“Giving money to your company now means giving money to Walmart,” wrote a third. “They are an ethically bankrupt mega-corp and I will never knowingly send a cent their way. Honestly I don’t know how you can sleep at night.”

Four weeks later, Walmart and ModCloth are still fairly quiet about how the new arrangement will play out, though both say that the latter will continue to live as an independent brand. What’s more immediately evident is how ModCloth fits into the bigger game its new parent company is playing.

Walmart has been on an online shopping spree since this summer, a push that’s accelerated in recent months. It bought the three-year-old marketplace Jet.com for $3 billion in August, the footwear site ShoeBuy.com for $70 million in January, and the quirky outdoor-gear e-tailer Moosejaw for $51 million in February. It’s now on the cusp of closing a deal with the direct-to-consumer menswear brand Bonobos, Recode reported last week, though a Walmart rep declined to comment on the rumor for this story.

Asked why Walmart is buying its way into the online apparel space with such determination, retail analysts had one answer: Amazon.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc., of Bentonville, Arkansas, was founded in 1962 by Sam Walton on the novel concept that small-town America was a great place to build big stores. It gave the company a near monopoly on retail in those communities, says Richard Vedder, a professor emeritus of economics at Ohio University and the co-author of The Wal-Mart Revolution: How Big-Box Stores Benefit Consumers, Workers, and the Economy.

Today, Walmart has roughly 11,695 stores in 28 countries, and its revenue reached $485.9 billion in fiscal 2017. But despite its incumbent status, it’s viewed as a company whose moment is in the past, says Vedder.

Amazon’s sales were a comparatively small $136 billion last year, but in the same way that Walmart changed the face of brick-and-mortar shopping, it’s leading the rise of e-commerce in a way that no other player is, least of all Walmart. The company slacked off in the early days of online shopping because, as Walmart CEO Doug McMillon recently told the Harvard Business Review, “We knew that if we continued to open Walmart Supercenters, they would do well.”

“We’re behind and we need to catch up,” said Walmart e-commerce CEO Marc Lore, formerly the CEO of Jet.com, onstage at a Recode event last month.

Clothing is a good place to focus simply because it’s become the top-selling category online, according to the analytics firm ComScore. Amazon understands its potential, too, having made forays into private labels and developed systems of on-demand clothing manufacturing.

It’s a harder category to break into than toys or electronics, Lore said, so Walmart figured it would be faster to speed its growth in apparel by buying smaller companies that have great product and existing relationships with manufacturers. That expertise can then be applied across the entire company: Moosejaw and ShoeBuy’s CEOs are now in charge of outdoor apparel and footwear, respectively, across Walmart, Jet.com, and their own sites. A rep for Walmart declined to say whether ModCloth CEO Matt Kaness will take on a similar role.

As it applies its acquisitions’ knowledge to its own business, Walmart will have to be careful not to alienate their customers, as ModCloth did when it shared the news of its buyout on Instagram.

Writing to Racked in an email from vacation, Kaness says that ModCloth is looking to see how it can partner with Jet.com — whose customer base is more affluent, more urban, and younger than the average Walmart shopper, according to Lore — in order to attract new shoppers. “But it’s too early to speak to specifics,” Kaness writes. For now, he says, ModCloth is working on projects it already had going: expanding its own apparel collection and building out its full size range.

Sidney Morgan-Petro, a retail editor at the trend-forecasting company WGSN, doesn’t expect Moosejaw, ModCloth, and ShoeBuy to suddenly be all over Walmart’s website.

“There’s not going to be a shop-in-shop for Bonobos in a Walmart store,” she says, speaking about the hypothetical deal. “I don’t think [the new ownership is] going to be that transparent to the consumer at the end of the day.”

But, like Jet.com, these online brands give Walmart access to new customers, ones who very well may have an Amazon Prime membership.

It’s impossible to ignore the fact that while the e-commerce wars rage, that same battle is putting traditional brick-and-mortar retailers out of business. J.C. Penney, Macy’s, Bebe, Payless, Wet Seal, and BCBG are among the many mall brands closing stores right now. Though US unemployment was at a low 4.5 percent in March, the retail industry lost 30,000 jobs that month and has dropped by 89,000 since October, according to Department of Labor stats.

Unlike these floundering names, Walmart has the cash to either build its own e-commerce capabilities or buy its way into the race, and it’s chosen the latter.

“But there are other retailers that aren’t choosing to buy or build their own e-commerce capabilities,” points out Evan Bakker of the research firm L2. Target, for instance, is doubling down on brick and mortar and trying to expand beyond its suburban shopper base with a fleet of smaller stores in urban areas.

“There are so many different answers to the problem of Amazon,” Bakker says. Walmart is in the lucky position of being able to compete. Everyone else is just trying to survive.