How Walmart can beat Amazon
Image: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

How Walmart can beat Amazon

Source Code

Good morning! Walmart’s tech presence should not be ignored: It’s only going to get bigger. I’m Owen Thomas, and I remember when K-Mart had an internet startup based above the wax museum in San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf.

Walmart is trying to make tech happen

Engineers in Bangalore and San Bruno. Cloud data centers. Plans to hire thousands of programmers in Atlanta and Toronto. Sound like a tech company?

Actually, it’s Walmart. The Beast of Bentonville has had a presence in Silicon Valley years before Facebook moved to Palo Alto, and its GitHub is no joke. But the retailer’s biggest challenge has been telling its tech story.

Walmart’s history of trying to be a tech company is longer than you might think. It dates back to the 1990s.

  • Featured in Walmart’s truly incredible 2000 annual report, a marvel of 1980s graphic design, the subsidiary then known as Wal-Mart.com had its own CEO, board of directors, funding from Accel Partners, and headquarters just outside San Francisco — deliberately distant from Walmart HQ in Arkansas.
  • By late 2001, Walmart had bought back Accel’s minority stake and lost its internet CEO. By 2002, Walmart’s annual report barely mentioned the internet.
  • The next big swing would come a decade later. Walmart bought a search startup called Kosmix. Its founders were Venky Harinarayan and Anand Rajaraman, who had previously sold a startup to Amazon. That became Walmart Labs, or @WalmartLabs. (Twitter was kind of a thing back then.) By 2018, the 60 or so startup employees and the existing Walmart.com operation had grown to 6,000 employees.
  • In 2016, it bought Jet.com for $3 billion and appointed founder Marc Lore to run all of Walmart’s ecommerce. He left last year. In 2017, it bought online direct-to-consumer menswear brand Bonobos, whose founder Andy Dunn had a three-year run at the company.

Walmart’s tech presence is real, and it’s getting bigger. Walmart Global Tech, as the division is now known, has 20,000 employees.

  • It plans to add another 5,000 this year, including at its new Toronto and Atlanta hubs. Walmart still has offices in San Bruno, near YouTube, and Sunnyvale. It even expanded into Amazon’s home turf of Seattle recently.
  • Machine learning? Check. Contactless checkout? Check. A third-party marketplace? Check. Omnichannel ad tech? Check.
  • Walmart’s GitHub repository has active open-source projects like Electrode and Concord.

The ultimate product Walmart is selling, in other words, is the future. The question is whether its shareholders will let it.

  • Walmart, like many established companies, pays a steady dividend that has increased for 49 straight years. That’s especially important to the Walton family, which still owns nearly half of Walmart’s shares. And Walmart’s bought back billions of shares over the past decade.
  • Amazon, by contrast, has never paid a dividend. And it only recently authorized a $10 billion stock buyback — its first in a decade.
  • Amazon is still on a hiring binge that makes Walmart’s look like pocket change. It still has 20,000 jobs to add at its Virginia HQ2, for example, and last fall, CEO Andy Jassy announced plans to hire 55,000 people for corporate and technology jobs globally.
  • One small investment Walmart could make is fixing the Walmart Labs open source code site linked from its GitHub account. It currently throws off an SSL certificate error.

Walmart has been making bold, billion-dollar bets on tech for decades now. The problem is that Amazon has been far bolder. Walmart is better positioned than most of the retail sector to resist Amazon’s onslaught as a result of its investments. But to really be a tech company — more crucially, to be thought of as a tech company — Walmart will have to change something more fundamental, which is its ownership. The really bold move would be to slash its dividend, stop the buybacks, and pour cash into tech and stores. (Better wages for its rank-and-file store workers might not be a bad idea, either.) Until that happens, Walmart’s tech story will be wishful thinking.

— Owen Thomas (email | twitter)

A MESSAGE FROM INTEL

In a few years, we may be largely living “on the edge.” As the amount of data grows exponentially, there is a greater need for edge computing solutions to aid in real-time decision-making.

Learn more

People are talking

While everyone's talking about Austin and Miami, Recursion's Heather Kirby said she wants to bring the best people to Toronto:

  • “It is infinitely easier to bring that kind of talent into Canada. A lot of companies have given up on immigration in the U.S. There are limits to what’s possible.”

Australia is planning new laws on misinformation, Communications Minister Paul Fletcher said, with much more enforcement power:

  • "Digital platforms must take responsibility for what is on their sites and take action when harmful or misleading content appears."

Coming this week

GDC starts today at the Moscone Center in San Francisco.

Domopalooza begins tomorrow and will address topics such as using data to predict hiring trends and the evolution of business intelligence.

Intel and Micron’s CEOs will testify before the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday.

Hands In 2022 is Thursday. It’s Virbela’s first summit about the ways companies are working in the metaverse.

In other news

Uber’s insurance coverage can become a nightmare. One passenger, who lost his health, job and home after a crash in an Uber, is taking the company to court, claiming Uber should take more responsibility for passengers’ safety.

Brazil dropped its ban on Telegram, after the company agreed to remove contents and accounts that the country's government found objectionable. It also made other Brazil-specific changes regarding misinformation.

The Bobs running Disney are having a rough time. CNBC found that Iger and Chapek barely speak, despite public perceptions that they're effectively running the company together, and are often at odds over the company's future.

Instacart is adding a temporary gas surcharge in the next few days, following Uber and Lyft.

A judge tossed out a lawsuit against Amazon in Washington, D.C., that accused the company of inflating prices for consumers, saying the lawsuit lacked evidence.

Porsche has new EV goals. The company wants 80% of global sales to be electric by the end of the decade and plans to build its own charging network.

Rachel Tobin joined Netlify as its first VP of Legal. Tobin’s been a lawyer for Zendesk for several years.

Are we ready to get real on social media?

Last year, there was a small push on Instagram to make the app “casual again.” The idea was to encourage users to post more authentically, but it didn’t really pan out. But with new photo-sharing app BeReal, being “casual” is the point.

BeReal lets users post once at a random time each day, but they can’t choose the time. The app sends out a notification, giving users two minutes to snap a pic. The app has become popular on college campuses, which is great for BeReal: If students stick with the app and share with their friends, they could push it into the mainstream.

A MESSAGE FROM INTEL

As a form of distributed computing, edge computing enables processing to happen where data is being generated. The convergence of 5G networks with edge computing means data is not only traveling faster, but can be quickly translated via media, inferencing and analytics into insights and action, enabling new, ultra-low latency applications to come to life.

Learn more

Thoughts, questions, tips? Send them to sourcecode@protocol.com, or our tips line, tips@protocol.com. Enjoy your day, see you tomorrow.

Recent Issues

A tale of two FTXs

Elon Musk, the un-CEO