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Wal-Mart and the Customer Buying Hierarchy

Recently, Wal-Mart found that it was losing some customers to competitors. After examining the reasons why, the company discovered that some of its customers were leaving because Wal-Mart had eliminated some of the products the customers were used to buying at Wal-Mart. This situation gives us the opportunity to look at the Customer Buying Hierarchy in a retail business.

We use the Customer Buying Hierarchy to analyze a company’s competitive situation and to evaluate its product and service innovation program. Through thousands of customer interviews, we have seen that customers buy in a four part hierarchy: Function, Reliability, Convenience and Price. And customers buy in the order of the hierarchy. They first solve their Function problem. If they have not chosen a supplier, they then move to Reliability and then to Convenience and finally to Price. Most purchase decisions are made well before the average customer gets to Price. That’s hard to believe, but it is certainly the case.

What do these four terms mean? Function refers to the benefits that the user of the product enjoys. In a retail context, Function benefits include the set of products available for sale and the physical layout and amenities offered at the retail location. Reliability refers to the consistency with which the company delivers on its real or implied promises to its customers. A retail customer usually measures Reliability in terms of product stock-outs and customer service in the event that a product the customer buys does not work as promised. If the customer does not see that the retailer accepts returns for defective products, the customer will consider that retailer to have failed on Reliability. Convenience refers to the ease with which a customer may purchase the product. This is an important benefit in retail, and wholesale as well. A retail customer measures Convenience by the ease with which the customer is able to find the product he wants, chose among the various alternative products, and pay for the product. Finally, there is Price. The Price refers to the net cash costs that the customer must pay for the product, after consideration of all extra charges and discounts.

We have found that most companies actually have some customer purchases in each one of the four categories of the Customer Buying Hierarchy. A company like Wal-Mart will have more in Price than will a high-end company like Nordstrom. But even Nordstrom will have a few customers purchasing because of Price, often because of Price on a particular high-end product.

Wal-Mart has found that it was losing share to competitors. It was losing share because it was failing to offer the Function benefits that it had previously offered. To save costs, it withdrew products from its shelves (see the Perspective, “Achieving the Low-Cost Position” on StrategyStreet.com.) Then, some customers found they had to make a separate trip to another retailer to buy those products. It is worth noting that Wal-Mart lost relatively few customers. These customer losses had a relatively small impact on its market share. This tells us that there are probably relatively few customers who go to Wal-Mart primarily due to its Function benefits. None-the-less, Wal-Mart failed at Function and lost share, even though, for the majority of customers, it continued to be a winner on Reliability, Convenience and Price.

Posted 3/22/10

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