November 12, 2012, 12:39 PM

Mobile chief predicts 40% of Wal-Mart’s holiday web traffic will be mobile

That’s close to three times the percentage of mobile traffic from the 2011 holidays.

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The chain retailer says its mobile apps and m-commerce site are the glue that binds its online and offline channels together.

40% of shoppers visiting Wal-Mart Stores Inc. electronically this holiday season will do so on a smartphone or a tablet, says Gibu Thomas, senior vice president of mobile and digital strategy. That’s close to three times the percentage of mobile traffic from the 2011 holiday season, he says.

Wal-Mart is seizing this mobile opportunity by revamping its smartphone app, which has been downloaded millions of times, though Thomas declines to reveal the exact figure. The app updates focus on providing information to customers in Wal-Mart stores, a reflection of the retailer’s strategy to use mobile commerce as much more than a sales channel.

“Mobile is not purely for driving transactions online,” Thomas says. “We think of mobile as the glue that binds our online and offline channels together to provide a seamless experience to our customers anytime and anywhere at the tap of a finger. If a customer comes to our mobile app, views her local ad and adds something to her app’s shopping list, then buys it in-store, that’s a mobile success for us.”

Wal-Mart Stores is No. 6 in the Internet Retailer Mobile 400, which estimates that the merchant will reach $293.8 million in mobile sales this year, up 130.1% from $127.7 million in 2011.

For the holidays Wal-Mart has just released an update to its app that enhances the app’s Store Mode functionality. Store Mode brings to the fore features and functions designed to help shoppers make purchases in-store. These features include the local ad, the shopping list, store maps and the QR code reader.

Consumers can tap on items in the local ad to find out more information or add items to the shopping list. The shopping list is tied into back-end store systems, enabling shoppers to discover product availability and location. The shopping list features an auto-complete function that suggests items from the store inventory based on what a shopper has begun typing or, through voice recognition technology, speaking.

Wal-Mart earlier this year geofenced all of its stores, placing all of the exact GPS coordinates for its stores in a database the app constantly is checking. When a shopper enters a store, the app displays a message asking if she would like to switch the app over to Store Mode. During the first two weeks of offering Store Mode, 60% of shoppers receiving a prompt made the switch, and the numbers have been increasing, Thomas says.

Store Mode is designed to help shoppers find the item they want and buy it in-store. But sometimes an item is not in stock, or perhaps a desired color is not available. Wal-Mart says 12% of its m-commerce sales occur while customers are in stores, showing that consumers are using their smartphones to buy from Wal-Mart what Wal-Mart does not have in stock, or perhaps purchase an item they don’t feel like carrying home, like a big-screen TV, Thomas says.

Thomas adds that Wal-Mart is prepared for an increasingly mobile Black Friday, the big shopping day following Thanksgiving. Wal-Mart distributes special store maps to customers on Black Friday, showing where in a store all the big deals are located. Wal-Mart this year has mobilized these maps. Consumers will be able to tap on areas of the map to discover the location of special deals and plan a trip through the store on the hectic shopping day.

The app also will be delivering push notification messages the weekend of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, the Monday after Black Friday that is one of the busiest online shopping days of the year. The messages will alert app users to the latest deals and store events.

And app users, Facebook fans and e-mail subscribers will get special online access to Black Friday deals on Thanksgiving Day, hours before they go on sale in stores.

Wal-Mart is promoting its mobile commerce offerings, which include the smartphone app, an m-commerce site and an iPad app, in a variety of ways, though to date it has succeeded largely in a viral fashion.

“We’re making mobile part of our marketing messages, in-store signs, training associates to inform customers, but the biggest way has been people downloading our apps and then spreading the word,” Thomas says. “People are telling their friends and downloading the apps and leaving great reviews in the app stores. But now we’re making a more concerted effort to integrate mobile into our marketing messages and store signs, telling people this is a powerful tool to save time and money when they shop in-store or on the app.”

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