Determined not to let the tailwind of current sales momentum go to waste, Walmart is using the opportunity to get back to a culture of innovation and risk-taking as it looks to expand its customer base and appeal through omnichannel retail—and doing it all at a gallop.
While CEO Doug McMillon and his team hammered home that message at the retailer’s investor conference this week, it was evident in a bevy of initiatives, partnerships, innovations and acquisitions—coming at such a clip one could be forgiven for missing them. What follows are a few new developments at Walmart, most announced within the last few weeks:
In one of several moves designed to boost its profile in fashion, Walmart teamed with comedian and television host Ellen DeGeneres on a line of casual clothing called EV1. The line includes 60 pieces of casual basics, such as T-shirts, denim and shoes, made to mix and match in a variety of sizes—and with price points below $30, aligning with a younger audience Walmart covets.
Walmart describes the EV1 brand as standing for “positivity and inclusion,” but DeGeneres is doing more than loaning progressive attributes to the retailer. She is also contributing a list of seasonal product recommendations on the website, including her inspired clothing.
The plus-size apparel market for women is a $21 billion industry whose shoppers nonetheless are underserved. Walmart would know, having launched its own private brand targeting that category earlier this year called Terra & Sky.
In Eloquii, Walmart has acquired an innovative virtual brand that specializes in the niche, and whose shoppers love, the company said. Walmart said it sees the Eloquii deal as something akin to its purchases of Bonobos and Modcloth, bringing a digitally native vertical brand to the company whose products and expertise cannot be found elsewhere.
The ink was barely dry on the Eloquii press release before Walmart revealed it had also acquired the online intimates specialty store, Bare Necessities. This deal brings “deep category expertise, a content offering designed to educate intimates shoppers, as well as strong brand relationships and operational capabilities,” the retailer said. As part of the deal, Bare Necessities founder and CEO Noah Wrubel will take over the intimates categories at Walmart and Jet, while continuing to lead the Bare Necessities site.
Walmart’s investments illustrate a shifting definition of what a retailer can be in the omnichannel world and highlight the importance of partnerships to get there. Its developing profile as a media company will be influenced by a recently announced partnership with Eko, a maker of interactive video entertainment.
A joint venture to be known as W*E Interactive Ventures will be led by Eko CEO Yoni Bloch and include some entertainment industry heavyweights devoted to developing personalized, live-action video such as cooking shows and interactive catalogs and other content shaped by the viewer that Walmart said would drive deeper relationships and provide cutting-edge content for Walmart’s long-held but sleepy streaming video platform, Vudu.
“By partnering with organizations across the industry to create original, interactive content, we’re bringing the next generation of entertainment to customers and delivering memorable experiences they can only find at Walmart,” said Scott McCall, SVP for entertainment, toys and seasonal for Walmart U.S.
Officials at the retailer’s investment community presentations this week spoke often of how technology can aid Walmart’s service and performance by automating tasks that previously required workers.
Cleaning the floors at a vast Supercenter, for example, is a two-hour task few employees are especially enthusiastic about doing. Walmart is now using an unmanned robot, known as “Auto-C,” to do the same job at 78 stores, and it is expected to be rolled out at 360 stores soon.
Auto-C joins a fleet of robotic technologies creeping into Walmart’s stores that also include the “Bossa Nova” auto scanning machine; the Alphabot robototic picking center now being fused onto a Walmart Supercenter; the FAST Unloader making stockrooms more efficient; and pickup towers, which retrieve online order at stores more efficiently.
High-Tech Grocery Warehouse
While Walmart’s new apparel and entertainment initiatives address a “long tail” for Walmart, grocery is still the head, and that’s not missing innovation either.
Walmart said it would break ground shortly on a next-generation warehouse in Shafter, Calif. that officials said would move perishable groceries including produce, eggs, dairy, floral and frozen items 40% faster than in traditional warehouses and result in fewer damaged packages and more efficient truckloads. The facility will use technology from the German logistics company Witron. It is set to open in 2020.
Walmart said the facility will use robotics to lift and stack while algorithms will palletize the items most efficiently to maximize space on a pallet or trailer – while also taking a package’s density into account, reducing damages. “Sort of like the game of Tetris, but with apples and ice cream,” the retailer said in a blog post.