Walmart is getting creative in its total war with Amazon. The retail giant recently announced a new service called Jetblack, a text message-based personal shopping service helmed by Rent the Runway co-founder Jenny Fleiss. Its initial target demographic? Rich families who live “in Manhattan doorman buildings” and receive an exclusive invitation.
Seriously, those are the only people who can currently pay $50 a month to shop at this new undercover Walmart. Membership gives customers the power to send purchase requests to a bot, with an anonymous courier delivering the requested items within a day. The example Jetblack uses (several times) on its website is needing a birthday gift for a kid, asking the bot what kids like, and getting the curated gift already wrapped with a handwritten card. How authentic-seeming!
Jetblack is the first business to be launched from Walmart’s Store No. 8 incubator program, and it’s still in the pilot phase. The company says it will soon be expanding into buildings without doormen and—gasp—Brooklyn. So it’s quite obviously targeting wealthy city dwellers. The strategy is especially poignant since New York is a city that has quite famously forbidden Walmart from building a store.
Still, the whole thing seems a little off-brand for a company that has aggressively targeted lower income customers. By tricking rich people into buying its wares, Walmart seems desperate in its attempt to find a niche market in the gig economy. But do people really want a bot or the underpaid Walmart employee behind the bot (Jetblack reportedly uses a combination of robots and humans for suggestions) to buy their kids gifts? Furthermore, aren’t personalized shopping and free shipping through a membership the main reasons that Amazon’s retail business skyrocketed a few years ago? Amazon Prime knows exactly what you like to buy, and Amazon’s bots will even buy it for you automatically.
Maybe the niche approach will work for Walmart. The company’s marketing is trying really hard to appeal to rich moms, although that effort seems off balance at best. The company’s Instagram account is mainly populated by wealthy-looking women hanging out with blonde-headed toddlers. You know, just the average rich American family.
This is all to say that Walmart desperately wants to get into the aspirational lifestyle business, and it feels gross. It’s been a year since Walmart bought Bonobos, a company that makes pants for frat boys with trust funds, for $310 million to let the world know it was interested in doing more than sell discount groceries and auto parts. It’s also been two years since Walmart bought Jet.com and seemed to announce that it was no longer going to ignore the very lucrative online retail business. Jetblack feels like some weird fusion of those two brand identities, yet somehow tainted by an awful business plan.
It’s worth pointing out that Walmart is just one of many companies trying to build a digital concierge service. Silicon Valley is full of startups that want to charge you money to answer your questions and buy your sundries. With names like Magic, Alfred, and Operator, these companies seem very popular with venture capitalists but otherwise largely irrelevant. After all, Google is free and pretty great at answering questions. Amazon Prime is a damn bargain and makes shopping for literally anything a seconds-long chore.
But Walmart still wants in on the fun. Would you like to spend $600 a year in order to chat with a bot and receive random purchases based on those conversations? Maybe you would. If you’re a rich mom in Manhattan, according to Walmart, you’ll fucking love it.