Fiona Tan, the senior vice-president of Walmart Labs.
Fiona Tan, the senior vice-president of Walmart Labs.

Customers want seamless experience no matter how they shop: Walmart’s Fiona Tan

Walmart Labs's senior VP Fiona Tan on the importance of an omnichannel strategy in retail, the e-commerce scenario, machine learning and analytics

New Delhi: Walmart Labs, a part of the $485 billion (Rs31.5 trillion) Walmart Inc., develops software solutions to enhance the shopping experience of the retail chain’s millions of customers around the globe.

Fiona Tan, who joined Walmart in 2014, is currently the senior vice-president of Walmart Labs, where she leads innovation and engineering execution on all customer-facing technology across the company’s physical and digital footprint.

A 23-year industry veteran and alumna of Stanford University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Tan will be speaking at EmTech India 2018—an emerging technology conference organised by Mint and MIT Technology Review—on 8 March in Gurgaon.

In an email interview, she talks about the importance of an omnichannel strategy in retail, innovations from the Bengaluru centre, the e-commerce scenario, and the role of technologies such as machine learning and analytics, among others.

Edited excerpts:

Retailers worldwide are looking to adopt an omnichannel strategy that combines their offline stores seamlessly with their online presence—the so-called phygital business. What has been your experience at Walmart?

We are laser-focused on this at Walmart—we call it digital relationship or omnichannel. It’s all about thinking of the customer experience holistically.

We have really doubled down on it over the past few years with things like Pickup Discount (discount applied to total order if customer elects to pick up items in store versus shipping to their home), Easy Reorder (shortens the time customers spend placing an order by pre-populating their accounts with items based on their purchase history), and Easy Returns (customers initiate the returns process themselves and complete the final step in store, shortening their transaction time in the store).

For us, it goes back to our core mission of helping our customers save money so they can live better.

Sometimes, living better means saving time, and seamless experiences across physical and digital can really help with that.

How would you compare the e-commerce scenario in a relatively mature market such as the US with an emerging but fiercely competitive one such as India?

I actually think there are a lot of core similarities—things like seamless experiences, ability to have transparency into where the items are sourced, price comparisons, and desire for strong options in things like fresh (produce). Clearly, there are differences as well.

Delivery is a huge piece of that—how can businesses leverage the amount of people and movement in the market to help with this? Or something like consumables—are there ways to create models where these items are available when we know customers need them? Data will be a huge component in emerging markets and will contribute to these examples.

Walmart recently merged the tech teams of its offline stores and online operations. Given that they usually work under different constraints, how is this integration working for you?

It’s going really great. The store and e-commerce tech teams have been working closely for quite some time, and bringing them together the way we did a year ago has accelerated things even more. Customers want a seamless experience no matter how they choose to shop with us and this marriage of the teams really allows us to manage that experience end-to-end. Plus, we brought together our strengths from across locations and teams—retail expertise, e-commerce expertise, data science, supply chain and merchandizing tech, software development…the list goes on.

Can you share some innovations coming out of your Bengaluru Labs and your plans in the near future, especially the way you leverage Big Data?

Our teams in India are a part of various teams across Walmart Labs. One of the big projects coming out of this team is looking at competitive intelligence and analytics.

It is a massive job to look at competitors, who change prices frequently and this team helps us detect and react to that—this is done pretty exclusively at the Bengaluru Walmart Labs.

There are other teams (in Bengaluru), such as for sourcing, which helps us understand which warehouse to pull items from when a person orders.

How should retail CXOs leverage newer technologies like machine learning, deep learning, blockchain, augmented reality and virtual reality more effectively?

All of these technologies are vibrant topics for retail—not only will they change the way we serve customers but also the way we work.

At Walmart, we have Store No. 8 which is looking five-seven years ahead at some of these nascent technologies and incubating them as separate companies under the Walmart umbrella.

Within Walmart Labs, we are doing a lot in terms of machine learning—from supply-chain tech and routing drivers to using data to help our merchants be more effective—it’s a huge part of how we work now.

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