Wal-Mart's Proposed Customer-Assisted Delivery System: Brilliant or Predatory?

Help a store deliver merchandise and get discounts


I bet if Whole Foods considered this service, the response might be different.
Walmart logo

I'm not likely to ever be featured on the infamous "People of Walmart" Web site, partly because I am not quite fat enough to be entertaining and do not own any clothing featuring animal prints, but also because I hardly ever set foot in the place.

I don't avoid Walmarts out of a sense of superiority. I just find trying to actually shop in their extremely busy physical stores to be frustrating. The same holds true for Target. The places are often overfilled with people and understocked with the merchandise I'm actually looking for, resulting in a doubly frustrating experience. Who wants to have push their way through the crowds and then end up leaving empty-handed anyway?

So like millions of Americans, I do a significant amount of online shopping, having purchased everything from batteries to blankets to box fans via the Internet. Recognizing this shift in purchasing habits, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is looking for ways to stay competitive with the Amazon monolith. Reporting for Reuters, Alistair Barr and Jessica Wohl take note of the corporation's embrace of "crowdsourcing" to draw on its own customers to allow for local deliveries without having to rely on external shipping processes:

Wal-Mart Stores Inc is considering a radical plan to have store customers deliver packages to online buyers, a new twist on speedier delivery services that the company hopes will enable it to better compete with Inc.

Tapping customers to deliver goods would put the world's largest retailer squarely in middle of a new phenomenon sometimes known as "crowd-sourcing," or the "sharing economy." 

A plethora of start-ups now help people make money by renting out a spare room, a car, or even a cocktail dress, and Wal-Mart would in effect be inviting people to rent out space in their vehicle and their willingness to deliver packages to others.

Of course, Wal-Mart would have to offer some sort of incentive for customers to handle their labor for them. According to the story, the plan is to offer these customers discounts on their purchases to help cover their costs, though a company executive says it's all still in the brainstorming stage.

Christopher Mims, tech and science reporter for Quartz, tipped me off to the story with a tweet: "Wal-Mart just found a new way to squeeze free labor out of America's desperately poor lower middle class." We had a brief exchange on Twitter where I argued that you can't be "desperately poor" and also "lower middle class," and then he brought up income distribution gaps, and then I bought up purchasing power, and that led to comments about the obese poor making bad food choices, which is symptomatic of the whole Wal-Mart debate. The problem isn't really Wal-Mart. The problem is that some Americans don't like the choices other Americans make and they blame retailers for offering consumers those choices.

I don't see how this system could be considered taking advantage of their customers if the customers get a deal out of it. That the payment comes in the form of Walmart store merchandise is not a problem for regular Walmart shoppers, obviously. Then the money saved from not having to pay for Walmart merchandise (most of which is not actually junk food) can be spent on other things and improve the financial situation of the "desperately poor" shoppers who participate.