‘Simple Text’ latest Wal-Mart app to connect its physical and digital worlds

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 637 views 

A personal shopping assistant to help customers navigate Walmart stores to find specific items is in the works. It’s one of of the latest ecommerce ideas from the retailer’s more than $1 billion bet (ahem, investment) on digital tinkerings underway at its tech labs in San Bruno, Calif.

Wal-Mart Stores is spending about $1 billion in each of the next two years on technology upgrades and supply chain efficiencies to help it win favor with the ever-changing expectations of customers and the challenges of virtual retailers like Amazon.

Wal-Mart is reportedly soon to rollout Simple Text, which like Siri, is a virtual personal assistant at your service. The purpose of SImple Text is to help shoppers more easily locate items inside the retailer’s large stores. Shoppers text "hi" to an identified phone number, 415-214-8445, and they are then greeted by a Walmart associate via SMS directing them to the item of their choice in precise detail. For more complicated or nuanced questions, shoppers will be directed to a live customer service agent, according to Fierce Retail who noted that Wal-mart attended TechCrunch Disrupt Hackathon in San Francisco last week and was seeking a few hackers to help them pull off this task.

The hacker team was asked to create the app out of frustration with the size of enormous discount stores and supercenters.

"It's such a huge store," hacker Rachel Tsao told TechCrunch.

"I want to get my hot Cheetos and get right out," said fellow hacker and team member Clara Tsao.

When combining services like Simple Text with Scan & Go, the retailer is hoping to offer customers more convenience and time savings, which is the major reason consumers say they don’t shop Walmart supercenters for quick trips or fill-in trips. The concept of using a personal shopping assistant could take some getting used to from traditional Walmart shoppers. But with the proliferation of smart phones, experts say customers should appreciate this service. The majority of RetailWire experts commenting on the Simple Text app favor the type of service.

“As well-designed as Walmart's native app is, Simple Text's simplicity and efficiency will come through much more clearly as a standalone. Walmart's service levels vary greatly depending on location – I've received some of the best and worst service ever within Walmart stores – so the shopping assistant could have the unintended positive effect of training associates to be more responsive. The shopping assistant supports Walmart's multi-faceted associate and store-focused initiatives,” said Carol Spieckerman, president of Spieckerman Retail in Bentonville.

Expanded tech services like Scan & Go, Simple Text and Grocery Pickup are designed to drive more traffic to the retailer’s physical stores while also digitally interacting with shoppers. Wal-Mart Stores CEO Doug McMillon has said the company is uniquely positioned to win at the intersection of retail and e-commerce. The $1 billion spend in technology in each of the next three years is a clear sign the retailer is betting on that belief.

Max Goldberg, president of a retail consultant firm, said Simple Text could be a plus for Walmart if it can quickly direct consumers to exact items. However, he said success will depend on execution.

“On the other hand, sending a text and being directed to a sales associate is a waste of time. Driving customers to the Walmart app may be good for the chain, but how will it benefit consumers? Too many retail apps are just alternative sales channels, rather than being valuable and meaningful for consumers.” 

James Tenser agrees.

“The product locator means nothing unless Walmart continuously maintains accurate and current information on every store layout, planogram and inventory condition. They can't seem to do that very well now, so how well will an SMS message help shoppers find items and make choices,” said Tenser, with Tucson, Ariz.-based VSN Strategies. “I'd call this an imaginative novelty that will appeal to Silicon Valley types but not to mainstream family shoppers.”

Neil Ashe, CEO of Walmart Global e-Commerce, said his team is focused on helping the retailer win the multichannel retail race. He believes that connecting the retailer’s massive number of stores to the virtual world gives Wal-Mart an advantage no other retailer has or can soon build. 

The new redesigned supercenter, which was unveiled in Rogers this past week, is a new clue into how serious the retailer is about connecting the stores through mobile media. Signage throughout the various departments such as baby, home, pharmacy and electronics direct shoppers back to the retailer’s website through the mobile app. The gift registries for wedding and baby are now part of the mobile app. Pharmacy refills may be completed on the app which also displays product rollbacks by category and electronic receipts via the Savings Catcher service.