As Walmart’s continues to face stiff competition in the ecommerce space, most notably from Amazon, the company’s technology arm announced that it plans to hire more than 2,000 “technologists” — which includes both full-time and part-time employees — by the end of the year. Walmart Labs currently has around 6,000 technologists who work on the technology that powers both Walmart’s U.S. stores and eCommerce businesses.
The roles include data scientists, engineers, and product managers. Most of the positions will be in Walmart Labs’ offices in San Bruno and Sunnyvale, California; Bentonville, Arkansas, where Walmart is headquartered; Reston, Virginia; and Bangalore, India.
Walmart Labs CTO Jeremy King spoke exclusively with VentureBeat about the division’s hiring plans for the coming year, citing the company’s growing online grocery effort in particular as the reason for Walmart Labs’ expansion. Walmart currently offers customers the ability to order groceries online and pick them up in-store in more than 1,500 of its stores, and will be in about 2,100 stores by the end of the year.
“Oftentimes we have 50 to 100 items in an order, and you know, we don’t send one picker out to the floor to pick one order and send it back — we’re really optimizing the pickup, and they’re picking somewhere between 5 and 15 orders at a time,” King told VentureBeat in a phone interview. “They’re actually fascinating machine learning problems.”
Walmart’s most formidable competitor in the online grocery pickup space — also known as “click and collect” — will likely be Amazon, which announced its acquisition of Whole Foods one year ago. Amazon introduced free, two-hour delivery from Whole Foods stores to Amazon Prime members in certain cities in February. And while it doesn’t yet offer a click-and-collect option, job listings for pickers in certain cities indicate that it may soon do so.
Danny Silverman, the chief marketing officer at ecommerce analytics firm Clavis, told VentureBeat in a phone interview that the algorithms data scientists at Walmart and Amazon develop to make grocery pickups more efficient will be critical in determining which one gains a better foothold in the space — most click-and-collect services are “are unprofitable to neutral for the retailer, and it’s more about the long-term value of the customer than making money on the [individual] sale.”
“A lot of retailers don’t have real-time inventory management, so it’s very difficult for them to take an online order and then fulfill it successfully — so a big piece of customer satisfaction and winning is going to be on how much they manage their inventory and deliver on [the order],” Silverman added.
Attracting talent to Middle America and the coasts
King also spoke with VentureBeat about the different hiring challenges and advantages Walmart Labs faces with its different offices. Walmart created the Walmart Labs division in 2005, following its acquisition of SiliconValley-based social media analytics company Kosmix, reportedly for more than $300 million.
In Silicon Valley, King acknowledged that tech workers don’t always readily think of Walmart as a technology company. That’s part of the reason why the technology arm is branded as “Walmart Labs.” King said that Walmart Labs often pitches workers on Walmart’s scale.
“Around 140 million people [in the U.S.] walk into a [Walmart] store each week, and getting access to play with that kind of data is intriguing to most people [in the field],” King told VentureBeat.
In Bentonville — where many members of the tech team work on merchandising, supply chain, and point of sale challenges — Walmart Labs faces less challenges from other tech companies for talent. But outside talent is less familiar with what Bentonville — a city of just 48,000 people — is like. The Walmart Family Foundation in recent years has invested in a number of projects to improve cultural and outdoors offerings in Bentonville, such as spending $74 million in developing mountain biking trails around Northwest Arkansas. Walmart is also the sponsor of the Bentonville Film Festival, launched in 2015.
Linda Lomelino, currently a senior researcher with Walmart Labs, told VentureBeat that she visited Bentonville twice — once for an on-site interview, and once with her husband and two children — before accepting the job with Walmart Labs and relocating to the area from Philadelphia.
“My husband and I did a lot of research about restaurants and schools and museums and cultural events — and any sort of surrounding experiences that we could have as a family. We also did a lot of research into the demographic profile of Bentonville,” Lomelino told VentureBeat. As of 2017, the city of Bentonville was about 75 percent white, 10.2 percent Asian, 9.2 percent Hispanic or Latino, and 2.7 percent Black, according to Census Bureau data.
King said that Walmart has also tried to create more opportunities for the tech community in Bentonville, hosting Tech Tuesday meetups at its office and working with engineering groups and other tech organizations for students at the nearby University of Arkansas.
“I think you’ll see more to come — J.B. Hunt and the other [companies] around there are all trying to attract technical talent to the area,” King said.
Correction, 1:32 p.m. Updated with the correct number of Walmart stores that will allow customers to order groceries online and pick them up in the store by the end of the year.