After more than four years of online experimenting -- and downright fumbling -- giant Wal-Mart Stores (WMT) is counting on former Gap superstar Jeanne P. Jackson to jump-start its critical e-commerce efforts. As CEO of Gap's upscale Banana Republic chain and head of the parent company's Internet and catalog unit, Jackson, 48, proved herself a keen builder of distinctive brands, online and off.
Her Internet smarts and marketing sizzle are sorely needed at Wal-Mart.com, which has failed to live up to lofty expectations. Wal-Mart essentially acknowledged as much by in January creating a separate Internet unit, based in Palo Alto, Calif., in partnership with well-regarded venture-capital firm Accel Partners. Despite Wal-Mart's powerful brand name, technology savvy, and massive resources, including $165 billion in sales last year, the company has struggled to build its e-commerce presence. In January -- before turning to Accel -- it launched a redesigned and vastly expanded Web site that was quickly criticized for its user-unfriendliness. In February, Wal-Mart.com ranked No. 50 among shopping sites, logging 1.3 million unique visitors, vs. No. 2 Amazon.com's 13.6 million, according to market researcher Media Metrix.
Now the Net appears to have Wal-Mart's full attention, with Chairman Rob Walton and new CEO Lee Scott both sitting on Wal-Mart.com's board. But outsiders question whether Jackson, named CEO in March, will have the autonomy she needs to compete not only with powerful e-tailers like Amazon.com but also with Wal-Mart's own stores. A retail veteran who has worked at Federated, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Victoria's Secret, Jackson points to her success at building strong cooperation between Gap's stores and its Web site as a model for how she'll boost Wal-Mart.com's results. At the Gap, for instance, store clerks will look for products online for their customers if the store doesn't have them in stock.
Jackson, a mother of two, counts herself among Wal-Mart's 100 million customers, stocking up on dog food, paper towels, and other household products for her weekend home near California's Lake Tahoe. She insists that Wal-Mart.com will be no different from the company's more than 4,000 real-world stores, each with merchandise that appeals to local customers. In some cases, Wal-Mart.com will have a broader selection than the stores, in others, it might have less. "We're going to tailor our store for the online community," she vows. But as Wal-Mart has learned the hard way, that's easier said than done.