A few days ago Toys “R” Us announced that the holiday shopping season has begun. Usually, I follow these things as closely as I do the Mayan calendar. But this year is different, because this year, deep within the strange and mysterious world of shopping, tectonic plates are shifting.
This is not just about everyone going Apple Store on us, with clerks toting nifty digital tablets and cash registers becoming icons of Christmas Past. This is about Walmart and its embrace of something that would seem to be distinctly unWalmartian—a concept known as the “social genome.”
The undertaking can be traced to last spring, when the retail giant purchased a Silicon Valley company called Kosmix for $300 million. Not many analysts knew what to make of the deal at the time. Kosmix was best known for developing a product that would track and try to make sense of the ridiculous amount of personal flotsam swirling around social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter. Which didn’t appear to have much to do with low, low prices.
Except Kosmix’s founders, Venky Harinarayan and Anand Rajaraman, are veterans of Amazon.com, which has left Walmart in the dust when it comes to e-commerce. And evidently Walmart could look beyond the horizon and see the rise of the three-headed beast known as SoLoMo—social media, local retail and mobile phones.
Now Kosmix is called @WalmartLabs and its focus is figuring out how to inject the notion of “social genome”—what your words and interactions on social networks say about you—into the Walmart mindset.
Don’t expect anything too dramatic in the near term—probably refined search results and personalized recommendations on the Walmart website, based on what the company computers have mined from your social-media behavior. But in recent interviews, the brains behind @WalmartLabs have hinted at what may be coming.
- Using data from social-media interactions in the neighborhoods around Walmart stores to help determine how to stock them.
- Providing gift suggestions for your friends and family members based on what they’ve been talking about on Facebook and Twitter.
- Alerts from smartphone apps that flag you while you’re shopping in Walmart about products in sync with your social genome.
Another sign of where Walmart is headed came last week when it bought OneRiot, a company that has focused on real-time search and placing ads in mobile networks.
The edge @WalmartLabs will have over Amazon.com, insists Anand Rajaraman, is that the latter bases its recommendations on past purchases while his firm’s technology has the potential to be more up-to-date, using the latest tidbits gleaned from other sources. Say you raved on Twitter about a concert you saw last night. Or maybe one of your Facebook friends just “liked” a new smartphone. Both pieces of information would become part of your updated social genome, your profile of likes and dislikes. In the new shopping universe, it will all be part of the stew that’s you.
Oh, and if the thought of having Walmart in your head creeps you out, stay calm. You’d have to opt in.
Clearly, this shopping season could be a watershed. To wit:
- Handhelding: Lowe’s just bought 42,000 handheld devices which will allow its sales clerks to check inventory, pull up the company website and show how-to videos to customers. It’s playing catch-up to its chief competitor, Home Depot, which deployed 30,000 mobile devices last fall. Likewise Urban Outfitters is rolling out point-of-sale (POS) handhelds in time for the holidays.
- Shopping 101: Customers at Macy’s and Bloomingdales will be able to use computer tablets to do a little in-store research on cosmetics, shoes and jewelry.
- Virtual wallets: Soon Citi MasterCard holders will be able to use the Google Wallet app on a smartphone—instead of a credit card—to charge purchases.
- That’s in there?: If you can’t make sense of food labels, you’re not alone. But now there’s an iPhone app that deciphers them. It’s called “Don’t eat that.”
Bonus: Think food shopping has to be boring? Au contraire.
What kind of smartphone app would you like to have to help you shop?