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Digital difference is evident at annual affair

While an abundance of celebrities and references to Walmart founder Sam Walton gave this year’s shareholders meeting a familiar feel, there also was an unmistakable emphasis on e-commerce and social media.

Those assembled in Bud Walton Arena could read Tweets from attendees as they scrolled around the perimeter of the venue while those watching via webcast saw a continuous Twitter feed displayed on their screens. Executives who presented at the shareholders’ meeting and later during a presentation to financial analysts also spoke regularly of Walmart’s commitment to grow by leveraging new technologies and exploiting the company’s physical assets such as stores and a supply chain infrastructure.

Walmart’s head of global e-commerce, vice chairman Eduardo Castro-Wright recapped some of the company recent initiatives and said they are indicative of continuing Sam Walton’s legacy of innovation in the 21st century.

Although Walmart has developed and grown services such as its direct-to-store free delivery program branded as Site-to-Store and more recently implemented Pick-Up-Today, Walmart is also relying on other firms to develop innovation, which it then acquires. That was the case in February 2010 when Walmart purchased the online entertainment company Vudu. Earlier this year, Walmart bought a minority interest in Yihaodian, an online grocery company in China, and followed that deal up with the purchase of the social media company Kosmix and the creation of a new entity called @WalmartLabs. Castro-Wright also announced that Walmart has six million fans on Facebook.

“We are staying out in front of the growth in social and mobile commerce,” Castro-Wright said.

That is especially true in China, which already boasts the world’s largest online population and where e-commerce is forecast to quadruple by 2016 to $300 billion, according to Wan Ling Martello, COO of global e-commerce. Speaking of the online grocer Yihaodian, she said, “We’ve been impressed with their remarkable growth and are very much looking forward to a successful partnership.”

Walmart is also looking forward to an eventual leveling of the playing field with regard to sales taxes. While meeting with analysts, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., president and CEO Mike Duke indicated that cash-strapped state governments will eventually need to remedy the tax situation which allows online retailers such as Amazon.com to avoid collecting sales tax.