January 02, 2007
"The environment is begging for the Wal-Mart business model"
Posted by Gordon Smith

That's from Lee Scott, who is commenting on Wal-Mart's plans to promote "compact fluorescent lamps" ... whether we want them or not!

Bulbs This is a tough sell -- consumers think the bulbs are expensive (it's true that the initial cost is higher, but the operating costs are much lower) and ugly (I think they are sort of snazzy) -- so Wal-Mart has pursued a new strategy:

But to reach 100 million, Wal-Mart has to do much more — and that, executives concede, is where the biggest challenges rest. In the fall, the company began reaching out to competing retailers, Internet companies and even filmmakers.

The goal was to turn its sales campaign into a broader cultural movement.

One proposal, headed by Lawrence Bender, who produced Al Gore' s 2006 documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth," is to create a Web site that would track sales of compact fluorescent bulbs at major retailers like Walgreen's and Target. The result would be a real-time map, with data collected by a third party, showing how much Americans have saved by using the energy-efficient bulbs.

[Andy Ruben, Wal-Mart’s  vice president for strategy and sustainability,] said such a map "helps consumers see this as something bigger than buying a bulb."

At the same time, Google and Yahoo are in talks with Wal-Mart about how to use their search engines to promote the bulbs.

But Home Depot and Lowe's balked at the idea of cooperating with their larger rival. "We don't think we need an organization like that to sell more CFLs," said Ron Jarvis, the vice president of environmental innovation at Home Depot, using the bulb’s industry nickname.

Notice that the Wal-Mart spokesman is "vice president for strategy and sustainability." This is an interesting strategic gambit for Wal-Mart. The potential payoff lies not only, or even primarily, in selling more light bulbs -- after all, Wal-Mart was selling plenty of light bulbs without this new initiative -- but in improving its public image, thus paving the way for the growth that has become so challenging of late. Will this sort of instrumental social responsibility carry the day with Wal-Mart's critics? Or must we have the sense that a company's convictions transcend market forces?

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