Walmart’s Silicon Valley incubator develops tools to shape the future of retail.
There’s a new player in the mobile and social media technology arena, one that has developed several powerful apps within the span of just a few months.
Surprisingly, it’s not a venture capital-funded startup working out of the founder’s basement, but one of the largest companies in the world. Even more surprising is that the company is a retailer: Walmart.
Called @WalmartLabs, the San Bruno, Calif.-based business unit of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. was launched to create platforms, products and businesses around social and mobile commerce to support Walmart’s global strategy of seamlessly integrating the shopping experience between brick-and-mortar stores and e-commerce.
@WalmartLabs began with the 2011 acquisition of a technology startup called Kosmix, which was founded by Venky Harinarayan and Anand Rajaraman, early pioneers of online shopping, whose first company, Junglee, was acquired by Amazon.com in 1998.
Ravi Raj, VP of products for @WalmartLabs, explains that it acquired the company “primarily for a technology that we call the ‘social genome,’ which basically mines social media data – data on Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare – and creates a profile for a person, place, topic or event. It can create a social genome for anything,” notes Raj, adding: “If you are on Facebook or Twitter and are talking a lot about the New York Giants, we know you are into football, and we can recommend products or other items of interest. On Facebook, it will look at your status updates, your Likes, your profile information, your interests, favorite movies, etc., and it’s all done with your permission.”
In addition to analyzing the social media data, the second action performed by the social genome technology is semantic analysis, in which it analyzes the meaning of the person’s actions on social media platforms. For example, if a New York-based Facebook user posts information on Facebook’s wall about the Giants, it’s likely that the user is referring to the New York Giants football team, rather than the San Francisco Giants baseball team.
Using this data, the Social Genome technology can develop a profile of the user that can identify his or her likely “tastes” for various products.
This generated the idea behind @WalmartLabs’ first social media application, Shopycat. A social shopping app that gives Facebook’s 800 million users the ability to find gifts quickly for friends and family, based on their tastes and interests.
The app uses social data to recommend items from Walmart.com, Walmart stores and other sites, including RedEnvelope, Barnes & Noble and ThinkGeek.
@WalmartLabs’ Shopycat Facebook app analyzes information – including profile data, wall posts and Likes – from a user’s Friends, and suggests ideal gifts for these friends.
“As human beings, we are inherently social, and shopping is one of the most social activities we engage in,” says Harinarayan, SVP of Walmart Global eCommerce and co-founder of @WalmartLabs. “Our vision is to delight consumers, and Shopycat is a first step in that direction, with social and shopping coming together on the scale of Walmart. At Walmart, we see social commerce fueling the next generation of e-commerce, where online and retail stores bring a continuous shopping experience to millions of users. We plan to continue experimenting with products as we build new social apps over the coming year.”
Shopycat is designed to trigger gift ideas for friends, ranging from music, books and movies to games and electronics, making gift giving more fun and saving on time and the pressures of discovering the perfect gift. A friend who might have shared interests in the movie “Super 8,” yoga and parenting, will have Shopycat recommend an exclusive edition of the movie, a fashionable yoga mat tote bag and a book on scream-free parenting. For people who aren’t active on Facebook with their Likes and interests, Shopycat will recommend gift cards from Walmart.com as well as iTunes, Starbucks and Zynga.
“The way we find gifts today is simply not very efficient,” says Rajaraman, Walmart’s SVP of global eCommerce, who heads up @WalmartLabs, wrote in the @WalmartLabs blog. “We amble through stores and malls until a product we think might be a good gift for a friend, a family member or a co-worker catches our eye. This is a time-consuming, hit-or-miss process, more often than not resulting in gifts that match our tastes and interests rather than those of our recipients. The ubiquity of gift receipts and the number of store returns right after the holidays are testimony to this disappointing state of affairs.”
The app also allows users to see what gift ideas Shopycat recommends for them, and they can update their profiles and interests to further tailor the list to the types of gifts they want.