Sam's Club has found a new way to market itself: reality television.
The Wal-Mart membership warehouse club division was the star attraction in the season premiere of NBC's "The Apprentice" last week (actually, the runner-up star, second to Donald Trump, who will never be upstaged).
By coincidence, this week's SN cover story by associate editor Jon Springer is about Sam's Club.
In the "Apprentice" episode, two teams of people vying for a job with the Trump organization competed in their first task: launching a marketing campaign to upgrade current members to premium at a New Jersey Sam's. The winning team chose an unlikely carrot to attract members: free manicures and massages. Nevertheless, it was enough to help them sell 43 memberships, three more than the rival team. The losing team, as usual, was called to the board room to be dressed down by Trump, who ended up firing the team member who failed to alert enough businesses about the offer.
In fact, the real winner was Sam's, which gained a lot more than the 83 memberships. Its mission to serve the small-business community was trumpeted throughout the segment. The Donald provided his imprimatur by calling Sam's "the nation's top warehouse club for small business." This is a valuable point to broadcast because Sam's is the club most focused on the business segment, as opposed to the consumer. Further, Sam's got to associate with a show that tends to focus on succeeding through the entrepreneurial spirit, a message that will resonate with Sam's customers.
There were other marketing tie-ins on the show. Each team was told to support its efforts with a Goodyear blimp campaign focused on the surrounding neighborhood in New Jersey. It just so happens that Goodyear has a longstanding supply relationship with Wal-Mart.
There are a number of things you would not necessarily know from watching this episode. First, according to an NBC publicist, Sam's paid to have itself featured on the show, as did Goodyear and all sponsors to be featured this season. You also wouldn't know that Sam's has more on its mind than just attracting or upgrading members. It needs to overcome the growth obstacles inherent in a mature retailing segment. As this week's SN story points out, it is doing this partly by pursuing new growth directions in office supplies and services for businesses.
Sam's made a high-profile decision a few years ago to recommit itself to the business customer, even as its rivals, Costco and BJ's Wholesale Club, were gravitating closer to consumers. Costco continues to hone its niche as the upscale club that consumers are proud to associate with. BJ's has moved to target families and is also hoping to poach supermarket customers by offering smaller food package sizes and moving fresh departments to the front of some outlets.
In concentrating on the small-business customer, Sam's has stuck most closely to the club industry's original focus, although it was forced into that niche because of Costco's strong consumer following and the need to avoid cannibalizing the consumer-focused parts of Wal-Mart's business. Those are other realities you wouldn't have learned from TV.