Walmart is open — not just for business but to new technology ideas.
After several years spent trying to infuse its multi-billion dollar business with more forward-thinking concepts with mixed results, last week, the retail giant announced that it will be conducting what amounts to an open call for tech innovation. It is looking to startups to potentially lead growth with big ideas and new technology solutions from small, agile companies.
Could one of these startups hold the key to unlocking a new world of technology for Walmart and remake the retail experience for millions of customers worldwide? The company is certainly hoping so.
According to a recent article by Fortune, Walmart’s “Open Call” will be more akin to a hackathon or the kind of tech competition you might be likely to see on the campus of MIT or Cal Poly. The Walmart Lab 415-C “Technology Innovation Open Call” event is part of the larger 2016 Northwest Arkansas Technology Summit. While the event is regional, it is certain to attract a larger pool of candidates from across the country, eager to introduce their tech solutions to Walmart.
“Our Open Call event is a great opportunity for companies to pitch their innovations to the largest retailer in the world,” said Tom Douglass, director of Walmart’s Lab 415-C. “I can’t wait to see what ideas and inventions we’ll discover!”
Walmart’s Lab 415-C team (an innovation incubator within the corporation) will accept 250 applications in the first round, which will then be whittled down to 25 to 30 finalists. Each of the selected finalist bids will have the chance to pitch Walmart executives on their product.
In a statement to Retail Info Systems (RIS) News, Douglass explained: “As part of Walmart Technology, Lab 415-C actively seeks to engage emerging technology in order to better understand how to serve our customers … Our goal in the event is not only to offer these companies a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity but to keep Walmart on the cutting edge of technology.”
What exactly is Walmart looking to achieve through this project? As the rollout of Walmart Pay looms imminently (it’s rumored to be ready for iOS and being launched in June 2016), it’s anybody’s guess where the retail giant is looking to innovate next.
But with the retail technology space heating up, Walmart doesn’t want to be left in the dust. As Mike Paley, vice president of shopper marketing at The Marketing Arm, put it in an interview with CIO: “In today’s increasingly connected world, brands and retailers are struggling to find ways to appeal to omnichannel shoppers … Technology advances have created an environment in which the line between brick-and-mortar and eCommerce is blurred and fading fast.”
As CIO observed, there are certain sectors within retail technology that are hotter than others. Beacons constitute one area that has gotten a fair share of attention. Macy’s rolled out beacon technology in nearly 4,000 stores, working closely with Shopkick and Swirl platforms and hardware, while Lord & Taylor and Urban Outfitters launched similar initiatives with the same tech suite.
Biometrics are another avenue along which Walmart may have its innovation sights set. As CIO noted, biometrics, which use technologies like fingerprint systems, facial recognition, iris scanning and voice identification, are a natural fit for retailers looking to improve their ability to target marketing efforts and boost security.
“iPhone users everywhere rejoiced when Apple added the passcode fingerprint scan,” says Paley. “Expect more in this area as marketers embrace the potential.”
ECommerce security can particularly benefit from biometrics, with Paley referencing both MasterCard’s selfie pay technology and Visa’s chip-based biometrics as a couple of examples poised to strengthen that connection..
Some of the best applications of technology in stores in recent years have been by luxury brands, like Rebecca Minkoff and Nordstrom, which both implemented interactive technology into mirrors throughout their stores. According to Forbes, interactive mirror technology is enhancing the customer experience and bridging the gap between in-store retail and eCommerce. The mirror technology allows customers to order a beverage (like tea, espresso or water) to sip on while they shop. Customers can view all in-store product inventory, look up a specific size or color and see if it’s available. The interactive dressing room mirrors identify each item a customer brings in through a sensor that recognizes a code from an RFID tag attached to each garment or accessory. The dressing room mirrors also offer four different light settings, which allow customers to view items as they will appear at different times of day.
Will Walmart follow the lead of these higher-end retailers or look to different areas of retail technology innovation? RIS is reporting that vendors at Walmart’s “Open Call” are being encouraged to pitch solutions around logistics, Big Data, security and social media within the retail space. During the process, the pitching companies will meet with more than 100 Walmart technologists, leaders and senior leaders.
Exactly what, if anything substantial, comes out of the project, of course, remains to be seen, but as Walmart’s example is showing, an important first step in innovating retail is having an open mind.