Did you know that the legal name “Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.” was changed effective Feb. 1, 2018 to “Walmart Inc.”? The name change is intended to reflect the fact that today’s customers don’t just shop in stores.
I’ve kept an eye on Walmart because historically the company was the leading innovator in regard to advancing retail focused technology and supply chain strategy. Even though Walmart isn’t the typical “underdog”, in the fight for online retail supremacy it currently finds itself in this position; and everyone can appreciate an underdog (see Philadelphia Eagles). Currently Walmart is locked in a fierce battle with Amazon to carve out a more substantial space in digital and online retail. As such, the company is bolstering its capabilities by focusing on technology enabled business processes, training and digital growth to keep pace with Amazon’s world domination efforts.
Walmart is experimenting with cutting edge technology such as virtual reality, autonomous robots, cloud storage platforms, cashier-less stores and even blockchain. It’s also formed various online retail and technology-based alliances to keep pace with Team Bezos. Walmart’s kitchen sink technology strategy seems to be paying dividends from an online sales perspective. E-Commerce industry luminary Marc Lore and his influence can been seen in some of the innovative technology plays.
Walmart, yes Walmart is getting in on the blockchain ledger revolution (or hype). The company plans to team up with IBM, JD.com and Chinese based Tsinghua University to create a blockchain food safety alliance.
Here is how the partnership will work according to ZDNet:
- Walmart, JD, IBM and Tsinghua University will work with regulators and the food supply chain to develop standards and partnerships for safety.
- IBM provides its blockchain platform
- Tsinghua University is the technical advisor and will provide expertise in technology and China’s food safety ecosystem.
- Walmart and JD will help develop and optimize technology that can be rolled out to suppliers and retailers.
Walmart has shown that blockchain technology has reduced the time it takes to trace food from farm to store from days to seconds. During product recalls this capability could prove useful for the retailer.
If Walmart were to offer a more investor appealing use of blockchain (e.g. a “Sam’s-Coin” ICO), you could count me in for a high two figure investment.
Image courtesy of ZDNet
Straight from “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” playbook, Walmart and Google announced a partnership to make Walmart’s items available on Google’s shopping service, Google Express.
The New York Times reports that “it’s the first time the world’s biggest retailer has made its products available online in the United States outside of its own website”. We can readily see what Walmart gets out of the alliance (expanded presence on the dominant search engine) but interpreting Google’s angle requires a bit more perspicacity.
Google fears that its search engine is being bypassed by consumers who go straight to Walmart to search for products. Google, (you may have heard) dabbles a bit in search and online advertising. A substantial shift in product search behavior that favors Amazon is bad for business. If Google can expand its own online marketplace with Walmart’s appreciable offerings as well as entice customers to use Google Home and the mobile based Google Assistant to locate products, then the company can retain a greater share of initial product searches. Google Express already offers products from Walmart competitors Target and Costco although Walmart’s collaboration offers the largest number of items.
“Walmart customers can link their accounts to Google, allowing the technology giant to learn their past shopping behavior to better predict what they want in the future. Google said that because more than 20 percent of searches conducted on smartphones these days are done by voice, it expects voice-based shopping to be not far behind.”
An existing Walmart application feature called “Easy Reorder” is slated for integration with voice enabled shopping via Google Assistant. Currently, when a consumer logs into the Walmart mobile app, they can easily see their most frequently purchased in-store and online items and easily reorder those items. Integration with Google Express provides an additional data channel to bolster the effectiveness of this Walmart offering.
Virtual reality would not be the first technology play that one would likely associate with Walmart. However, the company’s tech incubator (Store No. 8) has purchased Spatialand, a VR development tools company. Spatialand has previously worked with Oculus, Intel and “rap rock” artists Linkin Park to create virtual content.
Walmart’s intent is to use Spatialand to develop “immersive retail environments”. My expectations aren’t high that this acquisition will pay off in the near to medium term, but the company is demonstrating that it is trying to be on the vanguard of future retail technology. One can imagine this acquisition eventually enabling Star Trek “holodeck” capabilities where customers can enter virtual stores or dressing rooms and interact with products while in the comfort of their homes.
I propose that Spatialand and Walmart owned Bonobos would make ideal mash-up partners. Instead of trekking to a physical Bonobos store and trying on shirts and or slacks, consumers can create an avatar with similar dimensions and play virtual dress-up in 3D. The garments can then be shipped directly.
Additionally, Walmart is actually using Oculus headsets to train employees at its 170 training academies. The company has partnered with STRIVR, a virtual reality startup based in Menlo Park. I envision virtual customers stampeding through entrances on a Black Friday opening.
“STRIVR’s technology allows employees to experience real-world scenarios through the use of an Oculus headset, so that employees can prepare for situations like dealing with holiday rush crowds or cleaning up a mess in an aisle.”
There’s an App for That:
Walmart is trying to balance keeping its in-store traffic high while accommodating its growing mobile customer base. The company recently enhanced its Walmart application with a new “Store Assistant” feature that activates when a customer walks in the door. The app will allow customers to build shopping lists, calculate costs and locate in-store items at all of its domestic locations.
“So-called mobile commerce revenue — mostly generated via smartphones — will reach $208 billion, an annual increase of 40 percent, EMarketer forecasts.” – Bloomberg
Channeling its inner Tim Cook, Walmart launched a nationwide rollout of the Walmart Pay system as an additional application enhancement.
“To use the three-step payment system, shoppers link their chosen payment method to their Walmart.com account, open the camera on their smartphone and snap a photo of a QR code at the register. That notifies the app to process the customer’s payment. Shoppers can link their credit or debit cards, prepaid accounts or Wal-Mart gift cards to their payments; however, they still cannot use ApplePay.” – CNBC
Rise of the Machines:
As labor costs rise and technology increases, we can be sure of one thing. Robots are coming to take all of our jobs and Walmart isn’t doing much to disabuse us of this notion. As part of a pilot, the company is employing autonomous robots to about 50 locations to help perform “repeatable, predictable and manual” tasks. Primary tasks include scanning store shelves for missing stock, inventory calculations and locating mislabeled and unlabeled products. The robots stay docked in charging stations inside the store until they are activated and given an autonomous “mission”.
According to Reuters, Walmart’s CTO Jeremy King states that the robots are 50% more productive and can scan shelves three times faster at a higher accuracy. Walmart’s current carbon-based units (my words) can only scan the shelves about twice a week.
While Walmart insists that the robots won’t lead to job losses, I say to remember that technology always marches forward. Today’s “repeatable, predictable and manual” tasks are tomorrow’s non-repeatable, unpredictable and automated tasks.
Image courtesy of Walmart
Additionally, in 2016 the company “patented a system based on mini-robots that can control shopping carts, as well as complete a long list of duties once reserved for human employees.” Keep an eye on those robots as Walmart does not have a reputation for overstaffing.
In all seriousness, shelf inventory checks ensure that customer dollars aren’t left on the table due to un-shelved items. If Walmart can significantly lower the occurrences of un-shelved products with its army of shelf scanning Daleks, then the robots will pay for themselves.
Mr. Drone and Me
Never missing an opportunity to improve supply chain efficiency, reduce labor costs and keep pace with Amazon, Walmart is experimenting with drones. The company’s Emerging Science division has been tasked to consider future applications of drone technology to enhance operational efficiency.
Currently, inventory tracking at the company’s fulfillment centers requires employees to use lifts, harnesses and hand-held scanning devices to traverse 1.2 million square feet (26 football fields) of warehouse space; a process that can take up to a month to complete. If you consider that Walmart has close to 190 distribution centers domestically, the inventory process consumes a significant amount of labor hours when aggregated across the company.
The current plan is to utilize fully automated quad-copter drones mounted with cameras to scan the entire warehouse for inventory monitoring and error checking.
“The camera is linked to a control center and scans for tracking number matches. Matches are registered as green, empty spaces as blue, and mismatches as red. An employee monitors the drone’s progress from a computer screen.”
Drones would eventually replace the inventory quality assurance employees.
In an effort to increase its appeal to the young, hip and tech savvy, Walmart has opened a new engineering tech design center in Austin. The new millennial digs are located in a renovated 8,000 square foot space. “Walmart ATX” will house minds that work with cutting edge technology such as machine learning, artificial Intelligence, blockchain, internet of things and other emerging technologies. Factors such as a deep talent pool and low cost of living drove the creation of this Austin hub.
Here’s hoping Amazon decides to stay far away from its retail rival and brings its talents to Atlanta, Georgia.
The saying goes that Amazon is trying to become more like Walmart and Walmart is trying to become more like Amazon. Walmart teaming up with Japanese e-commerce giant Rakuten to sell e-books solidifies this sentiment. It should go without saying that Amazon has a sizable lead in selling e-books. However, Walmart is leaving no stone unturned as far as offering products that keep e-commerce shoppers from Amazon’s web presence.
Online Grocery Pickup:
Walmart is experimenting with allowing customers to place their orders online for pickup at a local store. The scheme currently requires the company’s human employees (eventually robots) to walk the aisles using a handheld device in order to fulfill customer orders. The device acts as an in-store GPS that maps the most efficient route to assemble the customer order.
Customers then pull into a designated pickup area where live human beings (eventually robots) will dispense the pre-assembled order.
I’m not kidding about “eventually robots” dispensing the pre-assembled order. Walmart currently has an automated kiosk in Oklahoma City that dispenses customer orders from internal bins. Customers walk up to the interface and input a code which then enables the kiosk to retrieve the order. Hal, open the pod bay doors; the future is here and apparently its name is Oklahoma City.
Courtesy of The Oklahoman
These approaches address the “last mile” problem which plagues large e-commerce players and start-ups alike. As consumer preferences shift from physical stores to online channels, repurposing stores into dual e-commerce fulfillment centers wrings additional utility from these assets.
In Home Delivery:
Another innovative e-commerce “Last Mile” proposal from Walmart involves the creation of a smart home delivery pilot. By partnering with a smart lock startup company August Home, outsourced delivery drivers will be supplied a one-time passkey entry into a customer’s home to unload cold and frozen groceries into the refrigerator. The home owner is alerted via phone notification that the driver has entered their property and can watch the in-home delivery livestreamed from security cameras. An additional notification is sent to the consumer when the door has automatically locked. This limited scale program is only being piloted in Silicon Valley (of course).
Per the Washington post:
“This is a group of people who are already used to a certain level of intrusiveness.. But God help the teenager playing hooky or the family dog who’s not expecting the delivery man.”
I can envision a future sci-fi use case involving “smart fridges” and automatic home replenishments. This pilot move is a search for an advantage in grocery delivery as Amazon recently purchased Whole Foods without overtly signaling what disruptive services may emerge from the amalgamation.
Smart Cart Technology
When Walmart made the largest ever purchase of a U.S. e-commerce startup with Jet.com for $3.3 billion, the company was looking for a way to ramp up online sales and infuse itself with fresh perspectives for online selling.
As I’ve mentioned previously, Jet.com has the potential to infuse Walmart with much needed digital innovation. This fresh perspective has the potential to add tremendous value to the organization as a whole. The “old guard” rooted in Walmart’s core business model needs to allow acquisitions to thrive instead of imposing the more conservative legacy culture.
The Jet infusion of innovative ideas back to the mothership is happening. Current Walmart e-commerce head Marc Lore launched Jet.com around an innovative “smart cart” system that offers the potential of lowering the price of customer orders. Here is how it works according to Forbes:
“If you have two items in your cart which are both located in the same distribution center and can both fit into a single box, then you will pay one low price. If you add a third item that is located at a different distribution center and cannot be shipped in a single shot with the other two items, you will pay more. As you shop on the site, additional items that can be bundled most efficiently with your existing order are flagged as ‘smart items’ and an icon shows how much more you’ll save on your total order by buying them.”
The order price can be further lowered if customers use a debit card or decline returns. This smart cart process is expected to launch on Walmart’s flagship site in 2018.
Who Needs Cashiers?
Customers shopping at roughly 100 stores across 33 states can participate in Walmart’s “Scan and Go” service. Via a dedicated mobile app, customers can scan the barcodes of items as they shop, pay through the app using Walmart Pay, and then exit the store after showing a digital receipt to an employee. As customers shop and scan with their phones, they can observe the running total of their purchases. This service is currently available at all Sam’s Club locations.
In this case Walmart is keeping pace with grocery competitor Kroger which is also experimenting with digital checkout experiences. Kroger has a “Scan, Bag & Go” service rolling out at 400 grocery chains.
Additionally, Walmart’s skunkworks retail division “Store No. 8” is working on a futuristic project codenamed “Project Kepler”. This initiative goes a step further and eliminates both cashiers and checkout lines by using a combination of advanced imaging technology on par with Amazon’s “Amazon Go” concept. As customers take items off of shelves, they are automatically billed for their purchase as they walk out of the store. The Jet.com acquisition is in play here as this initiative is being led by Jet’s CTO Mike Hanrahan.
Grocers already operate on razor thin margins therefore removing cashier interaction from the shopping equation fits in with the goal of lowering labor costs. Walmart employs approximately 2 million reasons to turn this future technology into reality.
Send in the Clouds:
According to the Wall Street Journal, Walmart is telling some of its technology vendors that if they want to continue being a technical supplier then they cannot run applications for the retailer on the leading cloud computing service, Amazon Web Services. Vendors who do not comply run the risk of losing key Walmart business. This is where we open our strategy textbooks to Porter’s Five Forces and key in on “Bargaining Power of Buyers” in the retail information technology provider space. The Economist reports that in 2015 Walmart poured a staggering $10.5 billion into information technology, more than any other company on the planet. To misquote E.F. Hutton, when Walmart speaks, you listen if you’re a technology vendor. The company’s cloud ultimatum is responsible for an uptick in usage of Microsoft’s Azure offering.
As I’ve mentioned in other posts, Walmart is known for its “build not buy” philosophy in regard to technology. Most of its data is housed on its own servers or Microsoft Azure which is the primary infrastructure provider for e-commerce subsidiary Jet.com. According to CNBC, about 80 percent of Walmart’s cloud network is now in-house.
Walmart’s cloud application development is facilitated by the company’s own open source cloud application development platform named OneOps. The aim of OneOps is to allow users to deploy applications across multiple cloud providers (i.e. allow users to easily move away from Amazon Web Services). Walmart has also been a huge contributor to OpenStack, which is an open source cloud offering and has been working with Microsoft, CenturyLink and Rackspace.
OneOps was originally developed by Walmart Labs and has since been released as an open source project so that Walmart can benefit from a broader community that’s willing to offer improvements. The main codebase is currently available on GitHub (https://github.com/oneops/).
Walmart is currently challenging tech titans Amazon and China’s Alibaba for a lucrative stake in India’s burgeoning online retail market. India’s expanding middle class makes its online market a lucrative target. The market is purported to reach $220 billion by 2025 according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch. Walmart is essentially barred from outright owning physical store locations in India due to the country’s restrictive foreign investment regulations. Foreign ownership for multi-brand retailers is limited to 51% and retailers must source 30% of its goods from small suppliers which poses a difficulty for Walmart. Walmart uses its global buying power to squeeze deep discounts from major suppliers such as Unilever and Proctor and Gamble. Smaller Indian firms will have more difficulty yielding to exorbitant price concessions.
Therefore, Walmart is currently in talks to purchase a sizable stake in Indian online retailer Flipkart. Flipkart is a highly attractive opportunity because it has been able to effectively compete with Amazon in India despite being outspent by Team Bezos. Flipkart currently has a 44% market share in India which is running ahead of Amazon’s share at 31%. Walmart’s multibillion dollar investment will likely value Flipkart at $20 to 23 billion.
An infusion of capital from Walmart makes sense for both parties; Flipkart can hold off attacks from Amazon while Walmart gets a piece of the action in a growing and lucrative online market. Amazon has stated its intention to invest $5 billion in India in order to beef up the number of its fulfillment centers. Ironically, Flipkart was launched in 2007 by two former Amazon employees, Sachin and Binny Bansal.
Walmart isn’t the only company looking for a piece of Flipkart as Google is also purported to make a sizable investment in the Indian firm at a valuation of $15 to $16 billion.
Walmart has had difficulties operating in India previously as evidenced by its now disbanded partnership with Bharti Enterprises. The two companies built 20 superstores branded as Best Price Modern Wholesale, but the venture fizzled due to aforementioned regulatory restrictions.
Meanwhile in China, Walmart partnered with JD.com which is a fierce Alibaba rival. Walmart and JD will merge their membership systems, so members can receive similar discounts at both retailers. In addition, the two companies will jointly work to create a system that enables JD.com to fulfill customer orders from Walmart inventories. Walmart initially had its own Chinese marketplace named Yihaodian but sold it to JD in 2016 due to its small market share in comparison to both JD and Alibaba.
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