What Walmart’s big tech investment means for workers and shoppers
Walmart executives say these changes have been possible thanks to massive technology investments over the years, and more changes are on the way. Walmart said this month it plans to hire more than 5,000 tech workers and open tech centers in Atlanta and Toronto.
Here’s what Walmart’s expansion could mean for workers and shoppers in the future.
Walmart’s tech ambitions
Walmart says it plans to expand its technology centers and hire thousands of workers in the United States and Canada. The investment aims to offer more digital tools to improve convenience for workers and shoppers, the retail giant said.
As part of expansion plans, the company — whose global technology team grew 26% to 20,000 employees in the last fiscal year, which ended Jan. 31 — will hire cybersecurity professionals , software developers and engineers, and data scientists. All will help make workers’ jobs more efficient and create a more personalized experience for shoppers, whether online or in-store, Walmart said.
The Toronto hub, expected to be one of the largest of Walmart’s 17 globally, will employ hundreds of technologists, while 140 will be employed in Atlanta. Thousands more jobs will be spread around the world. Walmart said it chose the two cities in part because of local tech talent and growing regional tech presences. Some tech talent may even come from its own workforce: employees have the opportunity to earn certifications and degrees for free. The company said 1,500 workers were already pursuing cybersecurity degrees through its Live Better U program.
How will retail jobs evolve with technology?
For workers, additional technology means flexibility and more tools to make their jobs easier, Walmart says. Workers currently use Walmart’s virtual assistant, Ask Sam, to get answers to questions like which aisle has Cheerios. They also use an augmented reality feature on their mobile devices to check inventory.
“Retail technology is particularly exciting because of its complex challenges and rapid pace of innovation,” said Fazal Khan, vice president of human resources at Walmart Global Tech. “Here, one line of code can impact millions of lives.”
Brandon Fletcher, senior analyst at brokerage firm Bernstein and a former Walmart executive, said inefficiencies related to workers moving items to and from different parts of the store cost Walmart billions of dollars a year. And store workers may one day have more flexibility in when and where they work with smarter scheduling systems, he added. Walmart’s employee app already allows for flexible scheduling, but doesn’t yet allow employees to take shifts at different locations.
What does this mean for buyers?
Walmart says technological advancements in its stores and the data they collect will bring more convenience to shoppers. For example, customers can check their size through Walmart’s app with a virtual fit feature that lets them choose from 50 styles of different heights, body shapes and skin tones.
Technological improvements could also allow Walmart to use data to better target customers with its other offerings, such as health care and financial services, said Joe Feldman, senior managing director at brokerage firm Telsey Advisory Group. . Fletcher said it could also allow Walmart to one day meet rural or suburban shoppers — a demographic he says Walmart dominates — at the airport on demand with toiletries needed for their trips. The idea is to create an ecosystem for customers, meeting their demands where they are, Feldman said.
What does all this technology mean for data collection?
The expansion could usher in a new era – one in which more brick-and-mortar retailers will use shopper data across more devices, systems and partnerships, increasing security risks, analysts say.
“The data is mostly already in Walmart’s systems,” Fletcher said. “More distributed technology means more entry points.”
Walmart says organizing the data it collects and doing more with it is just as important as technology priorities like cybersecurity and software engineering. The data not only helps the company run more efficiently, but it could also help Walmart’s partners and merchants in its online marketplace make better decisions, said John Forrest Ales, senior director of global communications for Walmart Global. Tech. Technology rolling out of its hubs could also help address supply chain challenges, keep employees connected and save buyers time once a physical space has been determined, he said.
Walmart said the technology it develops doesn’t always require personal data. Meanwhile, it has a team that advises the company on information privacy and how to use and manage data and cybersecurity.
“While technology continues to change the way we operate, it doesn’t change our values,” Ales said. “As we innovate, we want to make sure we do so in an ethical and responsible way.”
Big retailers like Walmart “are at a point where they know there’s more efficiencies to be gained by leveraging technology,” Feldman said. “Walmart has tons of customer data. If they can provide better data to [a third-party client like] P&G to better use its advertising [budget]maybe Walmart could get some” of the ad dollars.