Wal-Mart IT Links Online, Retail Channels -- 80 Million Times - InformationWeek
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12/8/2008
01:57 PM
Bob Evans
Bob Evans
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Wal-Mart IT Links Online, Retail Channels -- 80 Million Times

Wal-Mart's Web-based "Find-In-Store" capability has been used about 80 million times since last year as part of its drive to give customers more choice in how to buy and take delivery. Wal-Mart says customers want more information and more convenience, and are relying more on mobile devices. With Wal-Mart's sales rising in a lousy economy, there's a lesson here for all CIOs.

Wal-Mart's Web-based "Find-In-Store" capability has been used about 80 million times since last year as part of its drive to give customers more choice in how to buy and take delivery. Wal-Mart says customers want more information and more convenience, and are relying more on mobile devices. With Wal-Mart's sales rising in a lousy economy, there's a lesson here for all CIOs.The key to stronger results for the company overall is to vigorously link the operations and goals between online resources and the physical stores, according to Wal-Mart's Raul Vazquez, president of walmart.com and senior VP of Wal-Mart Stores. He recently explained the strategy to a meeting of securities analysts:

"We know that [customers are] accessing this information and they want this convenience in mobile devices much more so than they ever have in the past. What we do at walmart.com is we want to address those needs that the customer has by more closely connecting the stores that we have today with our online channel and we believe that through the integration, the close integration, of these two channels we can drive more traffic to Wal-Mart and to walmart.com, more sales, and therefore improve the return of our company."

With the find-in-stores feature, Vazquez said, a customer on walmart.com can find a desired product, provide her ZIP code, and then click a button to find out in real time if the product is available at her local store. "So at that point she can decide she either wants to buy it from dot.com and have it delivered to her home or she can go pick it up at her store immediately," Vazquez said. "This capability has already been used over 75 million times so we know it is driving traffic and knowledge about our products for our customer base."

Based on that success to date, Wal-Mart is planning to expand the capability to new categories of products -- starting with grocery, health, and beauty -- that have been big sellers in stores but have only very recently been made available online. Vazquez said the rationale is that "...if you think about this desire for more information, the best thing that we can do is expose more of the product offering to our customers and let her know about the products that are available in her local Wal-Mart."

On the mobile side, Wal-Mart has launched an iPhone application that the company believes will often be used as a customer is standing in a competitor's store and making a purchase decision. The mobile app lets the customer see if the product's available at the local Wal-Mart store and at what price, and also lets the consumer evaluate the product ratings from other Wal-Mart customers.

That's one example of the online community work Vazquez's team has been leading "to complement the self-service model" Wal-Mart uses in its stores. In that context, walmart.com has added "Q&A functionality" so one customer can ask a product question to customers who've already purchased that item.

Often, Vazquez said, the information consumers are seeking isn't "standard in our product descriptions but they're things that are important to customers, and this is a very cost-effective way to allow customers to help each other -- again, hopefully driving traffic and sales for our business."

No matter what business you're in, the three fundamental points Wal-Mart cites at its rationale for pursuing these efforts will ring true for your customers as well: they want more information about what they're looking to purchase, they want more convenience in making that purchase and arranging fulfillment, and they're increasingly using mobile devices as part of that process. In Wal-Mart's case, 80 million uses of the find-in-store application prove that CIOs need to lead the way in forcing internal issues -- e.g., online versus stores -- to take a back seat to what customers want and need.

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