Despite a staggering $444 billion in annual revenue, Walmart has generally been sluggish and conservative, allowing tech innovations to be toyed with by rivals such as Amazon.

Despite a staggering $444 billion in annual revenue, Walmart has generally been sluggish and conservative, allowing tech innovations to be toyed with by rivals such as Amazon.

But in the last few months, Walmart has quietly started acting like quite the aggressive startup, embracing mobile and various innovative tech approaches—including an infatuation with social media—in a way that no major chain, especially not the old Walmart, has ever done.

Consider Walmart’s efforts in just the last 10 or so days. It launched a price-comparison scheme where customers no longer have to walk into a Walmart store to do price comparisons, using mobile snapshots of their receipts e-mailed instead. It’s an innovative way to argue that it’s still a low-cost leader, especially when few customers will bother making them prove it. And it gathers lots of e-mail addresses and shopping lists of customer prospects.

Walmart has a search engine in the wings—not to be confused with the one they just announced—that will, by Christmas, deliver true contextual search results. For example, if someone searches for Apple, it will show iPhones and iPads. But if the shopper then searches for pears and bananas and if the shopper then searches for Apple, it will display the red fruit. This true learning engine will—if it delivers—be far beyond what others are offering, including Amazon.

Walmart also, just last week, tested a mobile checkout system in one of its stores. This allows the shopper to scan items in the aisle and then, when done, pay for them with a single barcode scan at the existing self-checkout POS units. Although this will sharply accelerate checkout (dozens of items can be scanned in the time is takes to scan a single 2-D barcode), the real benefit is that it gets Walmart true CRM (yes, they’ve never had a CRM system) along with the ability to change behavior in-aisle. For example, a shopper scans a can of dogfood. Within seconds, a coupon offering 40% off a competing brand is offered, while the customer is still in the dogfood aisle. Done properly, this has a huge chance of changing shopping behaviors.

Mobile goes even further. A recent U.S. federal appellate court has declared that Americans have no right to expect privacy for their location as detected by their mobile phone. This finally gives the legal all-clear for retailers to aggressively use geolocation and Walmart is all over it.

Walmart has also taken over the MCX retail alliance that wants to try and offer a mobile payment alternative, an effort that includes 7-Eleven, Best Buy, Lowe’s, Sears, Target, CVS and Publix. And it put a Google executive on its board of directors. When Marissa Mayer—who is now the CEO at Yahoo—was appointed in April, she was the youngest board member (by a fair bit) and the only one with mobile strategy background.

Heck, Walmart has even started using DNA to track shoplifters. The point being that Walmart has suddenly decided to lead IT efforts, which is a radically different role. IT Efforts? Sure. Consider that receipt-comparison plan. . First, the merchant must be identified—such identification is not in any uniform spot—and matched against Walmart’s confidential list of retailers that it will compare against. Second, the items must all be identified, which is not necessarily easy, given the huge number of rather cryptic codes many retailers—especially smaller ones—use.

Next, the system must identify the nearest Walmart to that location (relatively easy). It must then do a lookup to determine what the pricing was for that item at that specific store at that specific date and time. That’s one of the reasons for a seven-day limit. This database is huge enough as is, let alone if it needed to record every item’s price for every store for every hour going back months.

Or consider the search engine update. That engine even now decides what results to display based on product popularity (“last seven days of sales and last one year of sales”), the number of shoppers who have clicked or purchased that product, product user-generated ratings, the number of Facebook likes, what searches are popular from specific IP address ranges (suggesting geography) and other factors, Subramaniam said. All told, it factors in more than 100 data signals. You think that’s not an IT issue, let alone an IT nightmare?

Competing against Walmart has never been fun. But Walmart is used to being feared, not copied. That, too, may now be changing.


Evan Schuman is editor of, a US-based site that tracks retail technology, e-commerce and mobile commerce issues and a Retail Week content partner. He can be reached on