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Can Walmart Succeed With This New Premium Concierge Service?

Rich Duprey, The Motley Fool

You might associate a personal shopper service with some trendy boutique or department store. But Walmart (NYSE: WMT) recently launched its own concierge-like service as it tries once again to raise its image beyond just serving customers interested in saving a buck.

Jetblack, which is in a very limited trial run, is the new Walmart members-only service that allows customers to text their shopping requests. Virtual personal assistants will then find the items and ship them free on the same day or the next.

White-gloved waiter holding service bell on plate

Walmart is offering an exclusive personal-shopping service as it attempts to go upscale. Image source: Getty Images.

White glove service

Jetblack was launched only to customers in Manhattan and part of Brooklyn as Walmart gets its feet wet with the upscale service. For $50 a month, it says, members can shop for "everything from birthday gifts to household essentials," across categories like home, health, parenting, fashion, and wellness. The Jetblack site says it's the "easiest way for busy moms to shop" and shows examples including a mom requesting gift ideas for a child who loves puzzles and a reorder of diapers and wipes.  

You can send a text of what you want -- even a photo -- and through a combination of artificial intelligence and personal buyers, Walmart will find what you're looking for and deliver it right away at no extra cost. The woman in an explainer video on the Jetblack site is using a voice-to-text feature on her phone, so she doesn't even have to type in what she wants.

There are a couple of layers to the Jetblack service. For one, it's more than just automated shopping at Walmart. Owners of a Google Home assistant, for example, can already order items from the retailer simply using their voice. Jetblack seeks to elevate that capability by also using curated selections of goods as well as offering suggestions if you only give a general idea of what you want. Amazon.com's Echo does something similar when, for example, you're looking for toothpaste and it offers up various brands.

Moreover, product selection isn't limited to Walmart stores. It also includes its Jet.com website, as well as a select number of competing retailers like the Macy's Bluemercury site, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Pottery Barn.

It's an attempt to reach younger, more urban consumers, as well as a more affluent clientele, which Walmart has tried to do several times over the years, and not always successfully.

Out of its class

A decade ago, Walmart launched fashion lines from trendy designers like Max Azria and Norma Kamali. It even opened an office in New York's fashion district, but the effort failed and was shut down.

Walmart customers seem to be in it for the low prices. The company tried so-called "dynamic pricing" at its stores, with prices changing based on supply and demand, but that also failed and the retailer was forced to return to its everyday low pricing policy.

More recently, Walmart has been trying to go upscale again. Last year, it partnered with Hudson Bay's Lord & Taylor chain by allowing Lord & Taylor to open a storefront on the Walmart.com website. It's also using Jet.com, which it bought for $3.3 billion, to feature fashion from ModCloth and Bonobos, two other trendy, upscale designers it bought. And now, it is adding a personal shopping service.

Fade to black

Jetblack was created by Jenny Fleiss, co-founder of Rent the Runway (a rental service for luxury fashion goods), who joined Walmart last year. She created the concierge concept in Store No. 8, Walmart's technology incubator. Fleiss told Bloomberg that shoppers are typically buying 10 items at a time and that Jetblack has thousands of names on its waiting list.

It remains to be seen whether Walmart can really change consumer perception about its image. It's not certain the invitation-only personal shopping service will be the pry-bar that opens the door to upscale shoppers. 

Each time Walmart has veered away from its price-sensitive customer core, it has failed. But if it wants to compete against Amazon, it needs to break into the ranks of higher-income consumers. It's counting on Jetblack to be the vehicle to do that.

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John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, an Amazon subsidiary, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Rich Duprey has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Amazon. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.