On Wednesday, Recode reported that Walmart is in talks to buy Birchbox, signaling what would be the retailer’s fifth acquisition of a digital-first brand since Marc Lore joined as head of e-commerce last fall. Though neither brand would confirm, similar rumors regarding the likes of Bonobos and Modcloth all eventually came to fruition.
However, industry sources are split over whether or not Walmart’s purchase of the struggling subscription beauty service is as savvy as its previous acquisitions.
“Despite recent purchases of subscription-based services of high valuations, that model may well have had its day,” said Evan Neufeld, the vice president of intelligence at L2, referring to Unilever’s acquisition of Dollar Shave Club. “Subscription is good for certain renewable-based products, but I think the jury is still out on whether or not it continues to be a good business for samples.”
“Getting into beauty is a smart move today, but there are more relevant points of entry for Walmart than Birchbox,” argued another source, who has helped build out the e-commerce platforms of many large beauty brands.
A study this month by Hitwise shows promise, though, citing a total of 5.7 million subscription service shoppers in the U.S., 35 percent of which are shopping for beauty products.
The category is certainly renewable, meeting Neufeld’s guidelines, though Birchbox prides itself on being a less practical point of discovery for the non-beauty fiends out there. One result of that has been Birchbox’s full-price product offering, which now makes up 35 percent of its total revenue.
Stefan Weitz, the chief executive officer of Radial, an omnichannel experience provider for the likes of Walgreens and Adidas, points to Macy’s acquisition of Blue Mercury in 2015 for comparison. Like the older department store, Walmart could rely on Birchbox to expand its audience beyond its base, which is considered to be middle-aged, midwestern females with a household income of around $55,000 a year. Subscription services, on the other hand, over-index for younger, coastal women with household incomes exceeding $100,000 a year, according to the Hitwise study.
A Birchbox acquisition could help the company tap into a new audience segment, one that parallels that of the male-facing Bonobos.
“Walmart needs to leverage the brand awareness and affinity today’s consumers have found in Birchbox,” said Jim Fosina, the founder of Fosina Marketing Group. “It’s a huge departure from the ‘all-in-one’ retail store shelf mindset,” which created a void in the market that brands including Birchbox first sprung up to fill, he said.
Targeting these niche audiences, of course, is also giving Walmart more fighting weight against Amazon.
“If you combine this long-tail audience segmentation with [Walmart’s] 150 distribution centers and 4,000 stores in the U.S., you’ve really got an interesting counterpoint to Amazon, which is going down the house-brand route, instead,” said Weitz, citing its apparel brands like Lark & Ro and North Eleven. “While Amazon creates its own versions of clothing knockoffs, Walmart’s going after interesting, established brands and helping them thrive with an infrastructure unlike any other.”
If the Birchbox acquisition goes through, we’re not likely to see their product assortment sold on Walmart.com or in Walmart stores any time soon, however.
“If you think of Walmart’s core customer today, that’s not likely to be a Bonobos customer, and the same goes for Birchbox — so I’d be surprised if they collapsed it into the beast,” said Weitz.
Over time, we might see in-store pop-ups or pop-up sites on Walmart.com, but that requires a level of finesse for all brands involved that can’t be rushed, agreed numerous sources. “These guys are playing the long game,” said Weitz.