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Wal-Mart’s Plans for Digital Domination

Neil Ashe said e-commerce would give the retailer its next wave of growth.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has long seemed like it was bent on world domination, but it was never the company’s stated policy.

This story first appeared in the May 2, 2013 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

That’s changed now that the retailer is moving swiftly to develop its e-commerce business.

“We’re building a global technology platform whose goals are as simple, frankly, as they are audacious,” said Neil Ashe, president and chief executive officer of the retailer’s Global eCommerce unit. “We want to know what every product in the world is. We want to know who every person in the world is. And we want to have the ability to connect them together in a transaction.”

Ashe, the former president of CBS Interactive who joined Wal-Mart in January 2012, told investors at the Barclays Retail and Consumer Discretionary Conference in New York that e-commerce was “the next growth engine for Wal-Mart.”

“The history of Wal-Mart, as you know, is one of transforming retail,” Ashe said. “We started in the discount stores. We moved into warehouse clubs, we moved into grocery and now international. And at each step along the way we’ve developed capabilities which have allowed us to do things that others can’t do in the marketplace.…The abilities that we built in the other waves of retail we’re building at e-commerce now.”


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With annual revenues of $469.2 billion, Wal-Mart does just about everything it does in a big way. The company is trying to use its scale to get a leg up as people’s shopping habits change with Internet connectivity. That means taking advantage of the cost efficiency that size brings, but also taking something that was developed for, say, Brazil and using it in the U.S. Wal-Mart is building its own technology to support its e-commerce efforts.

As Wal-Mart strides and tries to lead in a new era, Ashe said it has to first excel at the fundamentals of e-commerce. That means getting customers, holding on to them, selling them things they want and keeping the promises that are made to shoppers. “If we say we’re going to deliver this widget to you tomorrow at your door or later today at our store, we’re going to deliver on that promise,” he explained.

Ashe said the company is going to continue to look to innovate in new areas, tap into its trove of data on consumers and stay attuned the mobile part of the market — half of the firm’s customers have smartphones.

Wal-Mart appears to be testing a little bit of everything in the digital realm. Shoppers can check themselves out with their own iPhones in about 200 Wal-Mart stores. Additionally, the company has tried out same-day delivery and is setting up lockers where online shoppers can pick up their packages.

Ashe said when he joined Wal-Mart there was a lot of talk about “omnichannel.”

“Are we omnichannel? Are we multichannel? Are we metachannel?” he asked, “I think that’s exactly the wrong question.”

Ashe said the omnichannel discussion looks at the consumer through the eyes of the retailer and not through the shopper’s own eyes.

“At the end of the day, what really matters is that the customer controls that experience,” Ashe said. “We have to choose to live in her world.”