Walmart tries new tech with eye on consumers

The retailer's Labs division wants to see how social networking and other systems can aid the shopping experience

Walmart could start letting shoppers buy products in the aisles and skip the checkout line, but the world's largest retailer needs to find out how that would improve the customer experience, the company's e-commerce chief said Thursday.

With Apple's new EasyPay feature for its Apple Store iOS app, shoppers with an iPhone 4 or 4S can buy some products simply by scanning the barcode, entering their Apple ID, and walking out with the item. Venky Harinarayan, Walmart's senior vice president of global e-commerce and head of Walmart Labs, said the issue with setting up such a feature is not technology but the user experience.

"Yes, you can do this. ... What we've got to figure out is, how do you make that customer experience something really worthwhile," Harinarayan said. The same is true of other new technologies. "These are not technology problems, they are customer experience problems."

Walmart is also interested in NFC (near-field communication) for making purchases by phone and in setting up a social network among the shoppers in its stores. But the company has just begun to study how those could make Walmart a better place to shop, Harinarayan said. He appeared in an on-stage interview at the GigaOm Roadmap conference in San Francisco. Walmart Labs was established earlier this year in Mountain View, California, following the retailer's acquisition of Harinarayan's startup Kosmix, to try out these types of ideas, he said.

Walmart has high hopes for a blending of social media and shopping, Harinarayan said. At the corporate level, the company could use trend information from social-networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter to inform its product and distribution decisions. Walmart Labs is setting up a "big and fast data group" to explore ways to take advantage of the huge amounts of information it has about shopping behavior and combine it with social-networking data, he said.

For example, finding out when people in Wisconsin start mentioning college football in status updates could help the company decide when to start putting team merchandise on shelves in that state, he said. And decisions about what toys to sell during the year-end holiday season, which need to be made in February or March, prove more accurate if the company looked at what types of toys people were talking about at that time, he added.

Within brick-and-mortar stores, Walmart may eventually set up a mobile social-networking service of its own, where shoppers and sales associates all could post comments and questions that everyone in that store could see, Harinarayan said. "How will this work? We don't know. But it's a very interesting experiment for us," he said.

Walmart's online store could tap into social networking even more deeply, Harinarayan said. The company is trying to find the right way to take advantage of data on daily activity on online social services. That won't be simply by having a Facebook page where users can find and buy things, but through integrating shopping into the usual things Facebook users do, he said. An obvious way is with buying gifts, a naturally social activity. "Gifting is not done well today on the Web," Harinarayan said.

"This actually has been playing really, really well over the last few weeks as we've started engaging some of this," he said. Mining social-networking data "can impact billions of dollars of merchandise if we get it right," he added.

Walmart eventually would like to provide an API (application programming interface) and let third parties create applications using some of these capabilities, but it is still very early in the development process, Harinarayan said.

Harinarayan declined to give more details on Thursday about Walmart Labs' purchase of Australian startup Grabble, a developer of point-of-sale systems for mobile phones.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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