Buying e-commerce growth through smaller deals is unlikely to pay off in the long run.

(Bloomberg Gadfly)—If you’d asked the founders of Bonobos a decade ago what their company would look like 10 years hence, it’s unlikely getting gobbled up by Wal-Mart Stores Inc. would have been part of the picture.

The hip menswear brand, which began selling pants from a Manhattan apartment and whose physical stores don’t actually offer any items for sale, doesn’t exactly fit with Wal-Mart, which predominantly sells groceries and gets 97% of its sales from bricks-and-mortar locations. But the retailing giant, No. 3 in the just-released Internet Retailer 2017 Top 1000, has reportedly offered $300 million to buy Bonobos (No. 232).

Come to think of it, none of the small e-retailers in Walmart.com’s recent buying spree of names such as Modcloth (No. 198) and Shoebuy.com (No. 103) seem like natural fits. And there are more deals to come, if recent comments from Wal-Mart’s e-commerce chief Marc Lore—who joined Walmart via its purchase of Jet.com—are any guide.

Investors looking to make sense of it all should consider what’s motivating the buying spree.

Wal-Mart spent $3.3 billion last year to buy Jet.com, an unprofitable upstart, with the hopes founder Lore could finally help Wal-Mart compete with rival Amazon.com Inc. (No. 1). After all, Lore had worked at Amazon after selling his previous company, Quidsi, to the internet giant.

advertisement

Wal-Mart had struggled for nearly two decades to understand e-commerce and was missing out on the retail industry’s growth engine. When Lore became Wal-Mart’s digital head, he was given a mandate: Drive e-commerce growth fast enough to prove to Wal-Mart board members that buying Jet.com was worth it.

What’s the fastest way to add sales? Buy up a bunch of companies that are already making those sales and sweep them under your corporate umbrella.

When Lore took over, he quickly learned what old hands at Wal-Mart had struggled for years to fix: Cool brands like Nike Inc. wouldn’t sell their stuff to the discount retailer. That meant its digital operations, which cater to wealthier shoppers, struggled to attract customers.

In true Wal-Mart fashion, the retailer is trying to buy revenue growth on the cheap.

But hipper brands were willing to sell stuff through Jet.com, which didn’t have the same brand-busting reputation as Wal-Mart. Moosejaw (No. 258), Modcloth and other recent acquisitions will also help Wal-Mart offer sought-after goods to shoppers without them ever knowing their dollars will end up in Wal-Mart’s coffers. These deals also bring in employees that are experts in managing key online categories such as activewear and shoes, talent Wal-Mart has lacked.

advertisement

The problem is, in true Wal-Mart fashion, the retailer is trying to buy revenue growth on the cheap. So instead of paying up for bigger online players such as Wayfair Inc. (No. 16), Overstock.com Inc. (No. 30) or Staples Inc. (No. 5)—which could really move the e-commerce growth needle—Wal-Mart is focusing on quantity.

Many of Wal-Mart’s small targets have been struggling to boost sales quickly enough to attract additional venture-capital funding at what are already lofty valuations. As retail IPOs dry up, these e-retailers have little choice but to sell to a strategic suitor or wind down operations.

The downside to Wal-Mart’s corporate-savior strategy is that, by the time it scoops up these companies, top talent has already fled. Traffic and sales have flagged. And becoming part of Wal-Mart doesn’t exactly bolster a digital retailer’s cool quotient. Those factors could lessen the positive impact of these deals on Wa-Mart’s e-commerce sales.

That’s what happened in 2012, after Wal-Mart’s previous e-commerce chief, Neil Ashe, bought more than a dozen struggling companies, many of them for scraps. The deals made Wal-Mart look committed to growing e-commerce sales, temporarily boosting its stock price. But five years later, Wal-Mart’s online sales are still stuck at 3% of total revenue.

For now, I can see why investors are giving Wal-Mart the benefit of the doubt, sending shares up 7% year to date. The company deserves props for trying. Acquisition headlines at the very least create the perception Wal-Mart intends to catch up to Amazon.

advertisement

But with Wal-Mart reverting to its old strategy of hoping small investments will yield big changes, it’s hard to see why the outcome will be all that different this time around. Perhaps Wal-Mart needs to think more ambitiously about how it will look in 10 years.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Wal-Mart’s discount approach seems to discount the allure of easy, aka Amazon

Favorite

advertisement