Wal-Mart’s New Apps Will Integrate Coupons and Voice Recognition

Wal-Mart is launching its first iPad app and is refreshing its iPhone app just in time for the holidays.

Both applications will enable consumers to shop online or see what’s available locally. Orders can be shipped or picked up.

The apps are being released ahead of the end-of-the-year shopping frenzy, which many retailers are hoping will be one of the busiest mobile commerce events ever.

“As customers use more smartphones and tablets, the Wal-Mart customer is doing the same thing,” said Gibu Thomas, the company’s SVP of mobile and digital.

That’s true, and it’s scary for big retailers. Increasingly, consumers are scanning barcodes to get reviews and compare prices before deciding whether to make a purchase or go somewhere else.

Thomas said the apps are not a defensive move against this trend, but rather a way to give consumers what they want. “We want to know how we can help our customers shop better with us, which will make them shop more with us,” he argued.

Wal-Mart’s first iPad app launched about a week ago.

It lets people browse inventory in their local store, while also seeing what else is available online. Instead of duplicating the online experience, they’ve created categories. For instance, in the home section, shoppers will browse a catalog-like experience, where they’ll see pots and pans, stereo speakers and outdoor fireplaces without any additional information.

To see prices or more details, a user will have to choose an item.

The major new feature of the iPhone application, which originally launched more than a year ago, will be a shopping list with integrated voice dictation using Nuance’s speech recognition, and discounts through a partnership with Coupons.com.

The app will be available as soon as it receives Apple’s approval.

This app gets pretty close to what many companies have been describing as mobile commerce — minus near field communication that would allow users to tap and pay. And, at Wal-Mart’s scale, this is truly something for the mass market.

Thomas said 90 percent of consumers who come to a Wal-Mart store on a weekly basis come with a shopping list.

The iPhone shopping list feature will allow people to enter items manually using predictive text. Type “cheddar,” and you’ll see a number of cheese brands and the price of each item.

Consumers will also be able to enter items using their voice. When Thomas demonstrated it to me, the app was fairly accurate. It recognized orange juice and sour cream as one item each, but Campbell’s soup came up as two.

Because the real price is listed, budget-conscious shoppers can decide how much to pay for groceries before even getting to the store. Coupons from Coupons.com will also be integrated into the shopping experience. You might type in “yogurt,” but decide on Yoplait for the discount.

For some stores, Wal-Mart has given consumers the ability to find out what aisle the items are in from the phone. That capability will roll out to more stores as it comes out of beta. Eventually, the information could be overlaid on a map to show the most efficient route for getting all of your items.

Thomas also said the company anticipates being able to store shoppers’ receipts electronically, so that items purchased will be uploaded to an individual’s device, making it easier to create shopping lists in the future.

“We think of your mobile phone as your loyalty card. We don’t have cards but we think of it in the sense that you can use your phone to surface real-time discounts,” he said.

The applications were built by @WalMartLabs in Silicon Valley, which serves as the technology hub for the Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer.

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