I’m reading up on @WalmartLab (twitter) belatedly. Here is an excerpt from the interesting Sept 12th, AdAge article “Walmart Seeks Boost From Tech With Labs – Developments in Search and E-commerce Could Help Retailer Leapfrog Over Competitors”, (emphasis and links added)

Venky Harinarayan and Anand Rajaraman, the entrepreneurs behind Kosmix, now head @Walmartlabs, a 70-person R&D operation based in Mountain View, Calif., as senior VPs of e-commerce for Walmart.

Previously, the two did a lot for Amazon, a Kosmix investor before the Walmart buyout. They created Junglee and sold it to Amazon in 1998, where it became the Amazon Marketplace of third-party vendors that today drives 30% of the e-tailer’s sales. They also developed Amazon Mechanical Turk, a crowdsourcing site where people sign up to do small tasks for small payments.

With @Walmartlabs, they have an arguably bolder vision. Mr. Rajaraman says in a quote used in all the unit’s job listings: “Social media and the mobile phone will have as profound an effect on the trajectory of retail in the early years of the 21st century as did the development of highways in the early part of the 20th century.”

So can @Walmartlabs let Walmart leapfrog over rivals on that road the way the retailer’s past tech mastery did?

“I hope so,” Mr. Harinarayan said in an interview. “That’s a tall ask. But the good news is that the scale is so large that if you can move the needle in a positive direction, the impact is large.”

Meanwhile, @Walmartlabs is mixing in some smaller ideas and projects specific to e-commerce, where the giant trails Amazon by at least six to one. Just closing the gap with Amazon wouldn’t solve all Walmart’s problems, but it would boost sales more than 5%.

I’m a firm believer when you run a lab, if you are doing only very speculative long-term things, you run the risk of not having wins that help you cement your position in the organization,” Mr. Harinarayan said. So in the early going @Walmartlabs is building the next generation of search and “helping with marketing” for Walmart’s online properties globally, he said. “Then we also have some much more speculative, strategic, long-term-payback opportunities that involve social media,” he said, aimed at creating better shopping experiences online and offline.

In one experimental project expected to debut for the holiday season, @Walmartlabs has been recruiting people to test Shopycat, a Facebook and web app that uses people’s social-media profiles and comments to generate gift ideas.

“Most of the recommendation systems you see today in online shopping are based on prior transactions,” said Mr. Harinarayan, who worked for Amazon in the late 1990s when its system was developed. The system works well for books, where people tend to buy in the same genres, he said, but so much not elsewhere.”

Here is the original launch blog entry and April 2011 WalMart announcement. And their promotional video.


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