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Wal-Mart offers the media a peak inside its Bentonville innovation lab

story by Kim Souza
ksouza@thecitywire.com

Wal-Mart Stores has made no secret of its need to innovate. By some outside estimates the retailer has spent around $2 billion on 10 tech startups since 2011. But the retailer rarely allows the media inside its expansive innovation lab in Bentonville where about 3,500 employees work to transform the shopping experience.

The media got a rare peak at some of the innovation consumers can expect to see in the coming months to years. Items revealed included 3-D digital printers in stores that allow shoppers to replicate their own images for wedding cake toppers and digital watermarks in print circulars that allow shoppers to scan the item on the page into their phone to glean a host of additional product information including reviews.

Wal-Mart’s chief technology officer Suju Chandrasekaran said the innovation lab and its collaboration with a Wal-Mart employees in San Bruno, Calif., Bangladore, India, and Sao Paulo, Brazil, have become a formidable technology company within the world’s largest retailer. She said the amount of data Wal-Mart collects and analyzes daily is so large that the company created a “Data Cafe” which merges point-of-sale data with social media feeds and syndicated market share data.

This real-time data is used to impact store staffing, on-shelf availability, merchandising and a host of other applications.

Cory Gundberg, vice president of strategic planning at Walmart Technology, said the retailer is looking at wearable technology and, with its suppliers, hopes to find that item that will become as common as the cell phone.

The retailers’s innovation lab has held eight hackathons in the past two years which has yielded scalable ideas such as “Amazing on a Budget” – a shopping tool that allows a shopper to get help stretching a food budget. The innovation came from a real-life situation when a shopper in Chicago asked the store manager to help feed her family of four on a limited budget. She gave the manager the budget and the store gave her list of items.

“Amazing on a Budget” does the same thing in a seamless manner while also allowing the shopper to stay within a budget. It can refer a private label or access a manufacturer coupon if available to help the shopper access savings.

Gibu Thomas, senior vice president of mobile and global e-commerce for Wal-Mart, said  Wal-Mart is using technology to get closer to the customer.

“We know 65% of our shoppers have smartphones, 80% of Millennial shoppers. This an incredible opportunity for help improve the shopping experience giving them more tools,” Thomas said.

He talked about e-receipts, which are created by scanning the QSR code on the bottom of the receipt or typing in a phone number into the terminal when cashing out. While e-receipts are not a new innovation, he said it is pa latform that can be expanded. Thomas said the e-receipts can be stored in e-mail locker and then used to create predictive shopping lists which may be accessed as the shopper enters the store. He said Scan & Go, which is now being tested in about 300 stores is more appreciated for its budgeting capabilities than the time savings, which is why it was originally created.

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“We are testing lots of things, learning fast and willing to fail fast which is part of the startup mindset.” Thomas said.

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