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Mobile tech is blurring lines between real & online shopping


Despite the controversy over FDI in retail, Walmart's technology division, @WalmartLabs, is expanding in India. It has played a critical role in developing various social media and mobile tools for Walmart's online retail presence and the company plans on hiring more local talent for its mission critical projects. Ravi Raj, VP for products, @WalmartLabs, talks to TOI-Crest.

What does your global e-commerce platform do?

This platform will exist at the Walmart scale and reach out to all 200 million customers worldwide and 10, 000 stores. The platform creates a seamless shopping experience between physical stores and online shopping. We expect to rollout next year, first in the US.

How does the India office of @WalmartLabs fit into this picture?

It all comes down to talent. We definitely think that there is a lot of high-density talent. This was our first overseas office that started in November last year. The Bangalore teams are working on critical projects that have been in the news recently. We have several teams in India, working on e-commerce, network infrastructure and we plan on hiring up to 200 people. We have got especially good talent from Google, Amazon and eBay. We don't want to see the India office as an adjunct to Silicon Valley - they are integrated with the US office. The teams are working on mission critical projects, social media analytics project, extracting insights from social media data, Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook for trends and shopping behavior. They are also working on customer acquisition projects.

Walmart has experience in social media, mobile etc. Where should the focus lie?

The customer doesn't really care about what channel they use - online, mobile, or in the store. We need a great shopping experience that works across any channel. What we have done is integrated the homogenous experience. We see mobile as really crucial because that is what blurs the line between online and offline retail store experience. Shoppers are walking into stores with phones that have the computing horsepower of desktops. For example, when you walk in with a shopping list, it can help you locate an item, say milk, in aisle A23.
We have apps such as ShopyCat which we launched this last holiday season across Facebook. The app, with permissions, looks at "likes", what you have said online, things your friends and family have liked, and suggests things you can buy for them. We had a million visits over the first three weeks. Or via the Get on the Shelf that we launched earlier this year, to crowd source things people want to see on the shelf. We got our customers to tell us what products they liked. By late January, we had nearly 4, 000 videos from people and over a million notes. For our Classrooms tool, we brought together teachers and parents to collaborate on school supplies in the new season - teachers can create supply lists and with a one-click experience, parents can buy all the products on Walmart.

How is this new search engine, Polaris, different from any other?

Search is a critical component. We acquired Kosmix in May last year for this. One of the first projects was building a search engine from scratch. It is already paying dividends, we have seen a 10-15 per cent increase in customer conversion, which means that they are completing the purchase from the search stage. There will be a team in Bangalore for this as well to focus on semantic technology to identify customer intent better. It really comes down to two things - precision and recall. The problem is if you can't find the product online but we carry it - with Polaris you are more likely to find it.

How do you deal with the constantly changing shopping habits?

Shopping habits do change. Apart from engineers, we also have folks who understand customer experience, looking at real customer problems and not just technology. For instance in social media analytics, we observed changing behaviour (what people "pin" ), and a lot tend to be products. And when we saw changes in behavior, we quickly launched a product called Spark Studio (about college living ) - inspired by Pinterest and what people are sharing, looking at products that become really popular.

When you mine these mammoth data sets from social media etc what are you looking for?

We are looking for product trends, what are the hot items, shopping behavior, local information. For example, our experience with a spicy chip called Takis. We wanted to find out where online chatter was spiking in social media about this. We mined data and identified some places in south California and Texas. Walmart then increased the supplies in the stores to tackle increased demand.

How different are your social media/mobile strategies between countries?

People from different cultures behave differently as shoppers. We focus on customer experience, which include regional aspects. For instance, the Classroom app might work in Canada, where the school system is similar to the US, but it won't work in Brazil. With Get on the Shelf though, when we launched that in China, we let them make their own changes.

Reader's opinion (1)

Ahmad BilalMar 22nd, 2013 at 17:19 PM

According to the report that in the world. Large number of people using their mobile devices for shopping. During Oct 2012 about 48 to 50% of the internet users use their mobile phone devices to access the social media sites and online shopping websites[] for shopping purpose.

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