Wal-Mart.com purchasing online communities

UPDATE 4/1/04: This was, in fact, all an elaborate April Fool’s hoax perpatrated by the moderators of the board. And I fell for it hook, line and sinker!

The Chainmaille Board is a niche web community for both professional and amateur artisans who make chainmaille jewelry and armor, one of the three big discussion boards for this community (the other two being the Maille Artisans International League and The Ring Lord Chainmail Forum). The board is run by “Lord” Charles DeCordene, who like The Ring Lord also sells his own supplies and jewelry, both to and in competition with other members of the community. The balance between fostering a community and competing with other members in that community is a universal issue from everywhere from niche hobbies to global industries, but that balance was shifted last week when Lord Charles announced that the discussion board was being purchased lock, stock and barrel by Wal-Mart.

Now the site’s new banner sports a “Provided by Wal*Mart, Always Low Prices” logo, and the splash page explains what the purchase will mean to the community:

First, here is what it doesn’t mean:

  • We will under no circumstances sell your email addresses to anyone.
  • We will under no circumstances send you promotional e-mail (also known as SPAM). On rare occasions we may send members a PM or an email should an urgent matter arise (i.e., if your posts contain inappropriate language or images).
  • TCB will continue to have no pop-up ads. We find these annoying, and believe it would drive members away. So quite simply, we’re not going to do it.
  • We will not censor your political statements. We believe in free speech. However posts that contain profanity or statements and images that we believe are offensive to the family-nature of the board will be deleted.

And what it does mean:

  • Increased tech support: We will soon set up a 24-hour chat forum where members can ask any technical questions.
  • Easily accessible archives: Building on previous TCB efforts, we will compile a list of articles and gallery photos to make the board the best resource on Chain Mail available on the Internet.
  • Connections to other board members: Because Wal-Mart is sponsoring multiple boards, we will offer members on all boards the option of registering with our General Community Board. This board will provide you the opportunity to find members in your area with similar interests. We are considering hosting monthly shopping days at certain Wal-Mart locations where members can gather together for a day of fun! It is up to you how involved you choose to be.
  • Opportunity to sell your chain mail: Our General Community Board will have an online store that has not only Wal-Mart products, but also products of interest to our board members. In the B y Our Members area, members can post items they would like to sell. Think of it as a larger version of the Trading Post currently on TCB. Unlike many other online stores and auction sites, it will be absolutely free to post up to 15 items per month.
  • Store Discounts: Beginning in June 2004, Members of Wal-Mart boards will be able to apply online for our new CyberCustomer Discount Card (CCDC). There is no annual membership fee and owners of a CCDC card will save 5% on all Wal-Mart purchases over $20.

We hope that you are as pleased as we are about this exciting venture. We look forward to building a successful relationship with every member here.

On the one hand, Wal-Mart’s sponsorship is adding clear value to this community: Lord Charles was having trouble running the discussion board with his own time and money, and could never offer the kind of technical and developmental support the board will now enjoy. They also will likely expand exposure and thus membership in the community, which in spite of the necessary growing pains will likely help the community in the long run. Wal-Mart, of course, now has the opportunity both to become identified as an insider in a close-knit community and to put their own online auction sites in a premium position. That’s vital for something like auctions, where customers and sellers alike will want to settle on a single marketplace. That marketplace is currently eBay — it’s clear that Wal-Mart hopes to change that default by getting a hold in certain communities and then leveraging that hold through their General Community Board and CyberCustomer Discount Cards.

On the other hand, there have also been concerns expressed in the community, ranging from “Wal-Mart is evil” to “how can a small wholesaler/retailer like myself ever hope to compete against this?” And the latter is a very good question, especially for people who don’t have the volume, Wal-Mart compatible style/branding, or just the desire to sell in the new landscape. These people might be in trouble down the road, forced to change their ways or quietly fade away (to the detriment of the community at large). On the third hand, small sellers who can make the shift to the new model might find the pie getting bigger and whole new marketplaces opened up, just as we’re already seeing with eBay and Amazon Store cottage industries.