Starting in 2008, Wal-Mart embarked on an ambitious project to improve the shopping experience in their stores. Code-named “Project Impact” the idea was to create a “better” Wal-Mart.

First, they sent out surveys. In the surveys, customers identified that they wanted cleaner, less cluttered stores. With this information in-hand, Wal-Mart began a huge multi-million dollar store refurbishment program. They slimmed down their inventory by 15%, redesigned shelves, and removed pallets from the aisles.

The result? Sales plummeted.

Phil Terry estimates that this experiment cost Wal-Mart at around $1.85 billion dollars. He explains what went wrong:

[Wal-Mart] relied on what customers said in a survey versus what they actually do in the stores. What’s easy to verbalize is not necessarily what’s important

People don’t want always want the “better” solution

The technology industry is obsessed with making things better: make it faster, create a better design, add more features, give the user more power. So it’s confusing to us when we build something “better” but customers don’t buy it. How many times have we heard: “I’m building a better Basecamp” or “I’m building a better email client”. These projects get released, but usually don’t get anywhere. Why?

We need to redefine what we mean by “better”

Let me quickly share a fishing illustration: let’s say you’ve set out to build the best fishing lure ever made. You craft an aesthetic design, source high-quality materials, and design the hook so the fish is less likely to get away. You’ve done all this work but you’ve made a huge mistake: you haven’t gone to see what fish are actually biting at. It doesn’t matter how much “better” your lure is: if the fish aren’t biting, you’ve wasted your time.

It’s the same for customers. Instead of setting out to build something “better”, we need to watch and see what customers are actually doing. Where are the fish biting? Some examples:

“I just need an easy way to share big files.” Boom! Dropbox.

“I like sharing my photos and making them look cool.” Bam! Instagram.

“I want to edit my business website myself.” Kapow! WordPress.

But people “should” do it my way!

The hardest part of this is resisting our urge to tell people what to do. “But this is the best way to do it!” It doesn’t matter. We need to follow what people are doing as opposed to what we want them to do.

Do you work from home?

Do you feel like you waste time at your desk? Are you trying to figure out how to be more productive?

These are topics I cover in my upcoming book: Hack Your Office. If you’re interested in receiving a sample chapter, sign-up here:


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4 thoughts on “What the People of Wal-Mart actually want

  1. Thanks for this post, Justin! I’m always looking for more examples to quantify the concept that as professional solutions providers, we are tasked not with taking orders, but with understanding the needs of the market in general, and providing solutions to those needs. While it sounds noble to “give the customer what they ask for,” it doesn’t require any real solution design, and is often counter-productive.

  2. I like the idea of “solution design”. It’s “understanding the needs of the market” that’s hard! Learning to listen in-between the lines and give people what they *truly* want is a skill I’m still learning.

  3. Great post, from a lean startup perspective learning is not validated by customer promises, they’re validated by customers paying to prove the concept in some way. I also wonder why such a program has to be a massive endeavor, why not test with a small subset of stores and gather data? Seems like considerable risk can be reduced through staged roll-outs of these kinds of initiatives.

    Ask them what they want, work out how to validate the viability of the change without massive financial commitment, then go to the gemba and see how it’s going.

    It’d be great to hear stories of similar but successful innovations in the enterprise/existing organizations.

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