Search plus social equals richer shopping experiences

Wal-Mart's Venky Harinarayan at GigaOM RoadMapThe store of the future has yet to be imagined, if Venky Harinarayan, SVP Wal-Mart Global eCommerce and Head, @WalmartLabs, is correct. At the GigaOM RoadMap event on Thursday, Harinarayan explained that new retail experiences for connected consumers are still in virgin territory, so he doesn’t know what they will look like. He does, however, know precisely what they won’t look like, saying “You don’t sell products by putting a storefront on Facebook.”
That doesn’t mean search and social media won’t play a big role in the future of retail. Far from it, in fact, because Harinarayan’s organization is betting heavy on finding ways to integrate social, search and shopping experiences for both retailers and consumers.

At Walmart Labs, we’re building a big and fast data group to combine store data with social media data in some meaningful way. For example, a Wal-Mart buyer in Arkansas doesn’t know the optimal time to stock football merchandise in Wisconsin. That buyer can look to the social streams to see when people in that region are tweeting about football or their favorite teams. Monitoring social media can even help Wal-Mart find breakout products.

There’s no blueprint for success here, however. Harinarayan said that we’ve never before lived in a time where 30 to 40 percent of customers in a store had a pocketable computer. That means shoppers are smarter, and new retail strategies must offer meaningful customer experiences. “It’s such a new area, it will be driven by experimentation and we have to be willing to accept failure,” he said.
Along those lines, the radical idea of a localized, in-store social network is one possibility. Consumers could communicate with other shoppers while also having the attention of store associates within the small network. Between in-store search capabilities, social-driven consumer preferences and more informed customers, the retail experience could be a winner for stores and smartphone-armed shoppers alike.
Disclosure: Venky Harinarayan is an investor in the parent company of this blog, GigaOM.
Photo by Pinar Ozger.