Skype Goes to Wal-Mart

What do Wal-mart and Bluto have in common? They’re both best noted for being, well —big.

So Skype is trying to reach the people in the marketplace bigtime. The Wal-Mart marketplace, namely, in more than 1,800 of the ubiquitous big box stores in all its forms: Wal-Mart Stores, Supercenters, Neighborhood Markets, and Sam’s Clubs.

Ten years ago VoIP was the domain of hobbyists and uber-geeks. What they were doing involved a headset and what most people — think Wal-mart shoppers here — would consider rather arcane knowledge. In fact, doing what most people including the Wal-Mart greeter would have had trouble recognizing as a phone call.

So broadband phone call companies tried to meet the people where they were, through the obvious retail distribution partners, stores where people ordinarily go to buy electronics.

But with this move, anybody can mosey over to the dedicated Skype Internet Communications boutique in Wal-mart’s electronics section and throw down $8.00 for a pre-paid calling card. For $25 they can get a webcam so they can send the home movie of the birthday party to all their relatives.

Skype brings Wal-Mart something Wal-Mart customers want. Skype started out providing computer-to-computer VoIP. One of its least elusive charms was that the software was free and so were calls among Skypers.

Now, manufacturers like Plantronics, Philips, and Logitech make Skype Certified hardware that currently lets millions of people Skype voice and video calls and send instant messages. In short, it’s a lot easier for everyone get in on Skype’s action.

And Wal-Mart’s action is, well, everyone, right? Wal-Mart brings Skype a huge market right in the demographic where Skype’s value really rules. And Wal-Mart gets to offer that market Skype certified headsets under $15, webcams under $25, and handsets under $30 from nine different manufacturers.

Customers will also be able to buy pre-paid Skype cards for $20 that let them make international calls for as little as 2.1 cents per minute, or one for $8 that gets them three months of unlimited Skype calls to any landline or cell phone in the US or Canada.

But Skype isn’t the first to try this. Last year, Vonage was already pushing its broadband telephony service through such retailers as RadioShack, Best Buy, Circuit City, Staples and Office Depot. And Packet8 has been out there too.

But they’re partnering with all the usual retail distribution chain suspects. And that’s the difference this time around. And now Skype is going there, too, with this difference: Wal-Mart is so much, well—bigger.

Reactions are mixed. Some are glum. The naysaying views point up the fact that people don’t go to Wal-Mart for Skype’s kind of product. Others cite the great Sears Roebuck curse. In other words, if someone asks you if you got your driver’s license at Sears, do you take that as reflecting favorably on your very own personal brand image? So will Wal-mart reflect well on Skype?

So the question in this story is whether Wal-Mart is going to end up like Bluto in the Popeye cartoons. Sure, Bluto’s planning to take Olive Oyl, Skype, to the dance. But Olive Oyl always ends up with Popeye, the little electronics stores, right?

But others are sunny, seeing the Wal-Martization of Skype as one giant step in the democratization of VoIP technology.

“Skype is already hugely successful. Economically, Skype is undercutting Vonage because it’s pay-as-you-go, putting Skype within anybody’s reach,” says Infonetics Research Matthias Machinowski. Skype’s boutique presentation of the products that will make Skype work at all levels of technological know-how and equipment, obviates any geek-knowledge barrier. “It’s the right form factor,” says Machinowski. “Wal-Mart is low prices and inexpensive technology. It’s perfect.”

Another way to look at this is that Olive Oyl gets to go out with Popeye AND Bluto.