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By Prashant Vadgaonkar (Tech troniks) / 10 November 2012

Can Wal-Mart’s new search engine, Polaris, help it compete better with e-commerce leaders Amazon.com Inc and eBay Inc.

WALMART, founded by the legendary Sam Walton way back in 1962 is unarguably the largest and the most successful retail chain in the world and boasts of about 2 million employees worldwide, in about 10,000 stores spread across many countries.

While Walmart was busy in growing exponentially by launching more and more storefronts and expanding its line of business with the Sam’s Club chain of warehouses, it did not focus much on the new technology boom which was round the corner. The Internet age changed the game dramatically, allowing online retail businesses and e-commerce leaders such as Amazon to take the front seat.

With a large population now preferring the online mode via the internet or mobile, Walmart needed to do a quick catch-up and come up to speed. The shift towards online and growing usage of smartphones and mobile devices to search items, find good bargains and deals, have made the world’s largest retailer focus on this segment seriously.

Enter @WalmartLabs –Walmart’s panacea to the changing needs of the consumer in the Internet age. The @WalmartLabs are mandated to figure out the optimised ways to leverage mobile computing and social networking even as the gap between the retail storefronts and e-commerce companies has begun to shrink.

In August 2012, Walmart Labs launched a homegrown semantic search engine, Polaris, which uses complex logic and algorithms to intuitively decipher hidden meaning from search queries. Wal-Mart hopes the new search engine, Polaris, will help it compete better with e-commerce leaders Amazon.com Inc and eBay Inc.

Walmart Labs focuses on three major areas for its development — Social, Mobile and the Retail. The Social Apps leverage their Social Genome technology to enhance shopping experience for its users. Shopycat is one such app that uses data from users’ Facebook activity to recommend the best products for the user and gifts for user’s friends.

They have also launched a new subscription service for food lovers , called Goodies Co. which determines what type of food lover you are, and helps discover new products! Get OnThe Shelf (GOTS), is a contest that gives anyone in the country a chance at getting their product portrayed in front of people and carried in Walmart stores.

Classrooms by Walmart is WalmartLab’s version of a teacher registry, a tool that helps teachers communicate their supply needs to parents and other donors. In the mobile space, Walmart Labs plan to build innovative, cutting-edge mobile products for Walmart customers around the globe while in the retail segment it bets on online marketing systems with the Big data platform and effective demand management. Other initiatives include devising personalised homepage recommendations and assisting Walmart store managers leverage Twitter trends to enable informed decision-making about products and stack up inventories accordingly.  Walmart Labs, was constituted last year by the acquisition of a start-up called Kosmix, a company which developed natural-language algorithms that improve and personalize search results by classifying words and understanding them in context. Walmart has expanded the labs to include about 400 resources located in California and in Bangalore, India.

Walmart still wary about the future of ecommerce and its demand, have opened a store in San Jose where its staff can experiment the convergence of online and offline shopping experiences. The trend wherein consumers research items on the Web, take recommendations from their social and Facebook friends, and use smartphone apps to make shopping lists prior to stepping into an actual store, is being explored.

One of the apps developed by Walmart Labs which is tried out in the San Jose store is called “Endless Aisle,” which allows shoppers to scan a code for out-of-stock items and see similar inventory to order online.

@WalmartLabs, as the company is named and branded, is strategically based out of San Bruno California and not in Walmart’s Corporate headquarters in Arkansas. The message is loud and clear — @WalmartLabs is a high-tech company based out of Silicon Valley and will deliver innovations and technology solutions — not simply be an IT services provider of the retail giant. So beware, Amazon and eBay!




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