October 31, 2011, 11:36 AM

Wal-Mart imagines ever-changing social networks of in-store shoppers

Consumers could use their mobile phones to reach other shoppers in a Wal-Mart.

Lead Photo

Ravi Raj

Two hundred million consumers walk into the global retail locations of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. every week, and there are a lot of consumers in most Wal-Mart stores at any time. But, unlike on the web where consumers regularly share their opinions of products and answer each other’s questions, there is no easy way for shoppers in a store to get the opinions of other consumers. But that may soon change, at least in Wal-Mart stores.

Wal-Mart’s newly formed research lab, @WalMartLabs, is working on creating social networks on the fly in the chain’s stores. Consumers would be able to use their mobile phones to interact with other shoppers in the store, asking and answering questions, seeking and giving opinions on products and deals.

“The primary value you’ll get is the community feel,” says Ravi Raj, vice president of product at @WalMartLabs. “We look to create a dynamic social network within the store. Shoppers will come together, interact with each other and then disperse. And then a new network forms.”

Raj says the concept is still in its early stages, and he would not go into more detail.

Further along is a new feature called Shopycat that Wal-Mart plans to roll out this holiday season, Raj says. It’s an application for use in Facebook that, with the permission of a Facebook user and her friends, would provide her with gift suggestions based on her friends’ activity and profiles within the social network. “With your permission, we create a profile of you and your friends, based on what they Like, talk about, call out in their profiles. And then we make gift recommendations, all with their permission. It takes the pressure out of gifting and makes it a fun and exciting experience.”

The Shopycat app builds on what Raj calls “social genome” technology that Wal-Mart acquired in April when it bought Kosmix, a Silicon Valley company that specialized in mining data from social networks in order to make targeted offers to consumers. While Wal-Mart has not said what it paid for Kosmix, it’s been widely reported that the purchase price was $300 million.

The Kosmix staff of about 70 became the core of a new mobile and social development center that Wal-Mart calls @WalMartLabs. Its mission is summed up in the tag line on the home page of WalMartLabs.com: Social+Mobile+Retail. “We’re here to make Walmart.com and Wal-Mart more social and more technology-centric,” Raj says.

The group is up close to 80 following its recent acquisition of OneRiot, a Boulder, CO, company that also has developed social commerce technology. @WalMartLabs will soon be moving from Mountain View to another Silicon Valley town, San Bruno, closer to the Walmart.com offices in Brisbane, CA. But the group will remain in Silicon Valley, says an @WalMartLabs spokeswoman, and will not be relocating to Wal-Mart’s headquarters in Arkansas.

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