A Look at Walmart’s Plans for Making Commerce High-Tech (Video)

Walmart is typically associated with its everyday low prices, not with technology.

But the mega-retailer is trying to change that by building a tech center in San Bruno, Calif., just south of San Francisco, which houses Walmart.com and a growing team of researchers.

The mission of @WalmartLabs is to study how mobile and social platforms are changing commerce, and how the line is increasingly blurring between online and offline shopping.

The lab, which now has a headcount of around 200, was founded about a year ago, when the Bentonville, Ark.-based company purchased Bay Area start-up Kosmix.

In an interview last week, SVP of global e-commerce Anand Rajaraman, who founded Kosmix along with Venky Harinarayan, said the group has had near-autonomy in trying out several experiments, some of which you might have thought would be taboo for such a large physical retailer.

For instance, the team rolled out Shopycat over the holidays on Facebook, which recommended gifts based on a friend’s interests.

The notable part was that the gifts did not necessarily come only from Walmart, but other retailers, as well. “It was the first time we sent traffic to a non-Walmart site,” Rajaraman said. “But if we want to be a place to find gifts, we thought the right thing to do was to include other retailers.”

More recently, the lab launched a contest called “Get on the Shelf,” which allowed small businesses to submit a video featuring a product they had invented. Starting on March 7, visitors to GetOntheShelf.com will be able to vote on those products they think deserve shelf space. Among the submissions is a product called “the Catcher,” which, as it implies, can be used to catch your dog’s poop before it hits the ground.

In the interview video below, Rajaraman also addresses another unfavorable topic among large brick-and-mortars — the shift from buying offline to online. It is a trend that Walmart’s big Internet competitor, Amazon, is benefiting from.

Today, retailers are fighting hard not to become showrooms, places where consumers go to decide what to buy before then making the purchase online. But Rajaraman suggested that maybe the concept can be embraced, and physical locations will indeed become showrooms, where shoppers pick up items that were ordered online, or try out products that are ultimately shipped to their homes.

And perhaps Rajaraman will help invent the technology that will make it all happen.

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Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work