Checking out Wal-Mart's Check Out blog

The blogosphere has become a relatively safe place to rail against your workplace under cover of a user name, to say anonymously what you'd really like to say to your boss's face if it wouldn't get you fired. So it must have come as a pleasant surprise to Wal-Mart buyers when their corporate bosses encouraged them to use Check Out, Wal-Mart's web blog, to lay out their unvarnished opinions about the merchandise the mega-retailer is stocking its shelves with.

As the New York Times points out, these buyers' "decisions about what makes it onto Wal-Mart's shelves have enormous impact, earning (or costing) vendors millions of dollars. It was a blogger on the Check Out, after all, who first disclosed last month that Wal-Mart would stock only high-definition DVDs and players using the Blu-ray format, rather than the rival HD DVD system. The decision was considered the death knell for HD DVD."

According to the Times, Wal-Mart's buyer bloggers have slammed everything from Microsoft to movies on the site, but their online musings aren't limited to their working life: They also write about their pets, religious beliefs and favorite authors, thus adding that sought-after "personal touch." Quick customer feedback is another benefit of the blog.

A quick check of Check Out, however, indicates that the blog is more of a marketing tool than a frank discussion of the up- and downsides of the Wal-Mart shopping experience. On a recent afternoon the opening page was rife with glowing reviews of new toys, from the Wii Fit game changer to the latest edition of Monopoly. One post was just a list of new DVD releases for the month of March (available soon at your local Wal-Mart).

The most off-topic post asked folks how they'd spend the money they got from Bush's new economic stimulus package--a clever way of doing market research to find out how many retail dollars the legislation might generate. (Interestingly, the bulk of reader comments on that post centered on the blogger's incorrect word usage.)

So while the stated purpose of the blog might be for consumers to get product reviews straight from the buyers' mouths, it's hard to ignore the fact that these buyers are essentially second-guessing themselves when they pan a product; in effect, it's like writing their own negative performance review. Better to stick to the costumer comments for honest assessments -- that is, when they stay on topic.

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