US retail giants go digital

26 November 2009

NEW YORK: Some of America's biggest retailers, including Best Buy, Wal-Mart and JCPenney, are looking to digital media as a way to promote their products and drive sales in the recession.

A recent study by the National Retail Federation, the industry body, reported that 47.1% of its panel intended to increase their activity on social media during this year's holiday season.

Similarly, a poll by Opinion Research found that more than a quarter of consumers plan to make more use of this channel in order to identify possible gift ideas over the same period.

Best Buy, the consumer electronics giant, has been one of the most active retailers in the digital space, particularly via Facebook, the social network, and Twitter, the microblogging service.

Barry Judge, its chief marketing officer, said "we're competing against the low-price leaders, the internet and everyone who's pushing a value proposition."

"But it's our people, our culture, that differentiates us. Social media lets you show who you are – the good and the bad."

Earlier this year, the company overhauled its page on Facebook, a process which helped boost the number of "friends" it had on the site from under 30,000 to almost 1 million in just over a month.

In preparation for the holidays, it has launched a range of online videos and games, including one simulating the experience of Christmas morning, as well as a "gift finder" and Hint Helper on Facebook.

"Those things are going to build business because consumers are going to be engaging with us," said Judge. "To us, it's getting at a deeper, more visceral level of communication than even our television does."

Going forward, Best Buy's activity on these types of platform will place an emphasis on its price competitiveness, and its high levels of customer service, an area where it has already made particularly effective use of Twitter.

"That's how we build our community, that's how we build our fans, that's how we get more people engaged, that's how Best Buy becomes top of mind," Judge said.

As previously reported, Wal-Mart has heightened the focus on its online operations this year, and the discount giant expects its web portal to receive some 350 million visitors between November and January.

However, the Bentonville-based firm only built a dedicated Facebook page relatively recently, which has around 50,000 fans, and offers users the ability to create a "Christmas Costume" and view the "wish lists" of their contacts.
Raul Vazquez, ceo of, said social media "can help drive sales, but elements of it are still being worked out. We're still testing and learning."

Alongside its newest TV spots, Wal-Mart has also uploaded a clip to Facebook providing users with a guide on how to use its iPhone application, which was released this month.

This "app" is mostly related to buying home electronics – including a tool helping shoppers pick the right-sized TV for their home – and has been downloaded by more than 300,000 people so far, a total that could pass 1 million by the end of 2009.

This week, JCPenney awarded five of its 600,000-plus fans on Facebook a one-off Black Friday shopping experience, and it will also use this and other such sites to alert shoppers to special festive offers over the coming weeks.

Kate Coultas, of its corporate communications team, said "all of this stuff is new, and we continue to do these initiatives and learn from them, but I think it's important to be out there and have a presence on these social-media sites."

Toys R Us, the toy chain, also posted its "Big Book" exclusively on F

Data sourced from San Francisco Chronicle, Star Tribune, Business Week, All Facebook; additional content by Warc staff