Walmart’s multifaceted quest for online supremacy

Walmart held an invite only media event at the San Bruno, Calif. headquarters of its global e-commerce subsidiary and several things were clear as news reports trickled out from the event.

For starters, Walmart is in full blown experimentation mode and probing many different aspects of how to serve digitally empowered customers even as customers are still figuring out how they want to be served.

The company was an early adopter years ago of order online, pick up in store, and last year began an experiment in select markets with same day delivery. Order online and pay with cash in store was another innovation Walmart launched last year that was well-received by shoppers. However, new initiatives unveiled at the media event include the usage of online order storage lockers in a handful of stores and the possibility of something called “peer to peer” delivery, a type of crowdsourcing initiative where shoppers would deliver other shopper orders. The company is also moving aggressively to improve conversion rates online when shoppers are searching for products using an in-house developed search engine called Polaris.

Media reports also indicated that Walmart is testing a new home page with a three tab configuration, one for traditional online shopping, one for browsing items that are popular on Pinterest and search engines and one with personalized information based on purchase behavior at a local store.

“We’ve dramatically accelerated customer acquisition online,” Neil Ashe, CEO Walmart global e-commerce, was quoted as saying at the event in an article in the New York Times. “We’ve got to be there. We weren’t there before and now we’re realizing the benefit of that.”

The point, Ashe explained to the Times and other media outlets, is to offer Walmart products anywhere a consumer wants to shop, whether in stores, online or on a phone.

It is an aspirational philosophy that hasn’t changed since 2006 when John Fleming served as CEO of the online unit and neatly phrased the objective as offer shoppers easy access to more Walmart.

The big difference some eight years later with Ashe at the e-commerce helm for little over a year now, is that Walmart is sinking a lot of money into digital initiatives. The company has made key acquisition to obtain technology and talent and is pressing hard to figure out how to optimize its U.S. network of 4,000 stores and global footprint.

The fact that Walmart held the first ever media day at its e-commerce headquarters indicates the company is ready to let the world know about the seriousness of its commitment to e-commerce. The company enlightened investors to the seriousness of its commitment last month when it disclosed 2013 e-commerce investments would negatively affect 2013 profits by nine cents a share.




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