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How Walmart is using tech to help with inflation pressure

As retailers around the world grapple with inflationary pressure, a Walmart (WMT) executive says technology will play a critical role in helping keep prices low.

Suresh Kumar, Walmart’s chief technology officer and chief development officer, said in an interview with Yahoo Finance Canada that the deployment of technology in-stores, online and throughout the supply chain will be critical for the company, particularly in today’s economic environment.

“Our mission is to help people save money so they can live better lives, and technology is not just an important part of that, it is in fact critical,” Kumar said at the 2022 Collision tech conference.

“It's a critical enabler of us being able to meet that promise and to be able to fulfill that. Especially in this inflationary environment, it becomes really important to make sure that we can drive efficiencies in our system.”

For example, Kumar points to the rollout of Mobius, technology that simulates the process of getting a good from the manufacturer to the Walmart shelf or customer’s home to determine what is the most efficient way to move that product.

The company is also working on deploying technology both in-store and online to make shopping more convenient for customers.

“We want to make sure technology is there to make the shopping experience as seamless and as friction-free as possible,” he said.

As it continues to invest in technology, Walmart is also increasing its presence in Toronto. The retail giant announced in March that it will expand its engineering hub in Toronto, hiring several hundred new workers over the next 12-months.

Kumar said the company sees Toronto as being “one of the big tech hubs” for Walmart.

“Toronto has got incredible talent,” he said.

“There are lots and lots of universities and lots and lots of great talent that’s available within Toronto. And so that’s the reason why we are here… We really want to double down on the investment in Toronto.”

Alicja Siekierska is a senior reporter at Yahoo Finance Canada. Follow her on Twitter @alicjawithaj.

Download the Yahoo Finance app, available for Apple and Android.

Video Transcript

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ALICJA SIEKIERSKA: So Walmart has announced plans to hire over 5,000 tech workers, including many of which here in Toronto. Why did you decide to choose Toronto as one of your key tech hubs?

SURESH KUMAR: Yeah, I'm really excited about our presence in Toronto. I think Toronto has got incredible talent. There are lots and lots of universities and lots and lots of great talent that's available within Toronto. And so that's the reason why we are all here.

Of course, Walmart has got a very strong presence. We have got a huge brand within Canada. And it obviously makes sense for us to have a tech presence out here as well.

ALICJA SIEKIERSKA: Right. Is the talent that you're seeing in Toronto, is that something that played a key role in your decision to come here?

SURESH KUMAR: Absolutely, it did. We want to be where there is a strong tech talent. And obviously, Toronto is one of the places where we are very, very excited when you combine the fact that there is a lot of tech talent and we have a strong brand presence, then it becomes a no-brainer for us to be here.

ALICJA SIEKIERSKA: And so how will Toronto fit into Walmart's greater tech ecosystem? What role do you see it playing for Walmart?

SURESH KUMAR: Yeah. In the long run, we envision Toronto to be one of the big tech hubs. We are obviously starting off we have already got about 11 associates that we have hired that have already started. By the end of the year, we hope to be somewhere around 100 associates or so. And we'll continue to grow. And we really want to double down on the investment in Toronto.

ALICJA SIEKIERSKA: And you're doing that doubling down and hiring more people at a time when a lot of companies are actually pulling back. So why do you see the time to invest as being now?

SURESH KUMAR: Yeah. Look, technology is a very critical part of everything that Walmart is doing. And right now, it's a great time to be in tech in retail because so much is changing in retail. There is a lot of disruption that's going on. New things are happening. New technologies are being leveraged, whether it is ML, whether it is AI, whether it is AR/VR. All of these, I think, are going to play a key role in the future of retail and how technology is being used.

So we are investing heavily in technology at all layers, whether it is the infrastructure layer from the cloud all the way to customer experience or to associate experiences. And so we will continue to invest to make sure that we can serve our customers better and we can run our business more efficiently. And Toronto is going to play a huge part in that.

ALICJA SIEKIERSKA: And as you mentioned, retail is really an area, I think, that's ripe for disruption, especially on the technological front. So take me through a shopping experience for an average Walmart Canada customer. How do you see technology changing the customer experience at Walmart?

SURESH KUMAR: Absolutely. One major thing that is going to continue to play an important role is convenience and friction-free shopping for our customers. So we want to always start with our customers. And we want to make sure that we serve our customers in the best way possible.

So whether you are shopping online or whether you're shopping inside the store, we want to make sure technology is there to make that shopping experience as seamless and as friction-free as possible. So let me give you a couple of examples, right? Let's say that you are shopping for your dress online.

We just rolled out a really cool feature where you can select the model that you want to see a preview of that dress. And it uses advanced machine learning to be able to take that dress and drape it on that model. So you can be much better-informed about how that dress is going to fit. That's just a starting point.

You'll be able to then upload your own photo. And using ML and AI, you should be able to then see how that dress will fit on you virtually without having to first order it. That's one way of taking friction out.

Another way that you can think of, when you order a bunch of things online, maybe one or two of them are bestsellers and we have run out of them in our local store. You want to figure out, what is the best substitution for it. Well, we have got ML and AI that know your history, know your preferences, and is able to suggest the best substitution for that particular product. Of course, we'll ask you. But 95% of the time, technology gets it right and is able to give you the best substitution that you wanted.

Another example is in terms of how you can try out big products like furniture inside your home. You just want to try it out. So you can take can take the product, and you can see how well it fits inside your home. So these are all ways in which the customer is able to have a better experience, a more friction-free shopping, through the use of technology.

ALICJA SIEKIERSKA: Right and there is a lot of technology that ends up being hyped but doesn't really help make this seamless shopping experience, or it just ends up falling flat. So how does Walmart decide what technology is going to get into the store and what technology is going to be here for the long term?

SURESH KUMAR: Yeah. It's a great question. We start by first understanding what the customer's needs are. So what do the customers really want? They want great value. They want access. They want choice. And now with the pandemic, they're also wanting to make sure that trust and safety makes up an important part of it.

So you start over there. And then you make sure that the technology solutions that we are building truly actually either increase the value by being able to be more efficient so we can offer lower prices, make the shopping friction-free so that the choices in terms of we want to pick it up yourself from the store-- do you want somebody to deliver it to your home? Or do you want somebody to actually put it all the way into your refrigerator? Those are choices, right?

Technology can enable those choices in a seamless way rather than, like you said, technology just for the sake of technology. We don't want to do that. We want to understand the customer first, understand what the problems are, build the solution, and then close the loop back. And we want to go back and find out whether the solution is actually helping them or not. If not, we tweak them. We make sure that we continuously keep improving it so that, at every iteration, the customer experience becomes better and better.

ALICJA SIEKIERSKA: And now we are entering a very challenging time with persistent inflation, geopolitical tensions, and of course rising rates. How do you see technology playing a role at Walmart in terms of offsetting those costs? Because I know cost is so critical to the company.

SURESH KUMAR: Absolutely. Our promise is everyday low prices. In fact, our mission is to help people save money so they can live better lives. And technology is not just an important part of it. It is, in fact, critical. It's a critical enabler of us being able to meet that promise and to be able to fulfill that mission.

Especially in this inflationary environment, it becomes really important to make sure that we can drive efficiencies in our system. Supply chain as an example, how our associates are able to focus on helping our customers. I'll give you an example.

We rolled out a piece of technology called Will Speak. And this is a technology where our associates can take the phone and point the camera at a shelf. And it will tell them what are the products that need to be restocked, where are the products available, and how we move the product from the back room into the shelf. It's a great time saver, but it also allows our associates to focus on what's most important.

So technology, ultimately, is there to eliminate not just customer friction but to drive efficiency. In our supply chain, we have rolled out a solution called Mobius that allows us to be able to simulate all the complex interactions of all the different parts of our supply chain in advance so that we can figure out, what is the best way to take a piece of product, move it all the way from the manufacturer or from the farm to the shelf are actually into the customer's home? It's a complex, real time optimization. And that's where technology comes in.

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