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Walmart Chief Technology Officer Suresh Kumar talks tech, shopping experiences, and crypto

Walmart Chief Technology Officer Suresh Kumar speaks about technological disruption in the retail sector and how Walmart is transforming the shopping experience.

Video Transcript

AKIKO FUJITA: Well, tech may not be always synonymous with Walmart, but the retail giant is moving aggressively to change that with Suresh Kumar at the helm. As Executive Vice President and the company's first Global Technology Officer, Kumar has been tasked with transforming the Walmart experience by driving innervation from the inside. And he's got 25 years of experience to pull from with prior stops at Google and Microsoft.

And we are pleased to welcome in Suresh Kumar from Walmart headquarters today. Suresh, good to talk to you. You have been--

SURESH KUMAR: Good to talk to you, Akiko. Thank you for having me.

AKIKO FUJITA: Yeah. I mean, you've been in this position since 2019, so you're going on for years. You've built out a team of about 20,000 workers globally, tech-specific. Earlier this year, you announced about 5,000 people you're adding to this team with hubs in places like Atlanta as well as Toronto. Where are you along in that journey? And what does that say about how Walmart sees tech driving its next chapter?

SURESH KUMAR: Yeah. I am leading a global team of wonderful technologists across the world. And we are building the next generation of retail, the experiences for our customers, and we are building the tools and technologies that are completely transforming our business.

As you know, Walmart's purpose is really about saving money and helping people lead better lives. Technology is such a critical part of delivering on this promise. And that's what we are setting out to do, whether it is enabling the customer to be able to buy right in the middle of their social feed when they get inspired, or having their products delivered all the way into the refrigerator. We are building the technology that enables all of this to happen.

And we are building tools and capabilities that are completely transforming our business. Retail is getting disrupted. And the role of technology really is to actually help Walmart be the retail leader in the disruption that's already starting to happen. And we can see that in customer experiences. We can see that in the way in which we use data to drive efficiencies. We can see that in the ways in which our associates are working in order to be able to serve our customers better. All of this is part of the transformation that is enabled by technology. And that's what me and the team are setting out to do.

AKIKO FUJITA: And we'll get into more of the specifics in just a bit. But I to pull back because you've talked a lot about the transformations that have happened in retail. And you've said, look, they happen about every 20 years. I think a lot of our viewers are familiar with the most recent one, which, I would argue, is the push to e-commerce driven by your competitor, Amazon. But you say, we are in the middle of another cycle. What does that look like?

SURESH KUMAR: Yes. See, every industry goes through disruptive cycles. Typically, all of these things are actually driven by advances in technology, like you mentioned, the last big disruption in retail was really the introduction of e-commerce. That was enabled by the growth of internet.

But since then, we have seen so many improvements in technology. We have got incredible computing power in the palm of our hand. We have mapped every single square-inch of the planet. We have computers through deep learning that can recognize and understand natural language. And we have computers that can recognize objects.

All of these things are coming together, and they are the fuel for the next round of disruption that we are already starting to see. We are starting to see that in the way in which customers are finding, discovering, and getting inspired for new products. We are seeing disruptions in terms of how people shop. We are seeing disruption in terms of how products get delivered to the customers.

Walmart is in a unique position because the true disruptors are those who are going to really be able to look at the entire whole customer experience. It's not just about online. It's not just about the stores. It's about making sure that the customer experience is a delightful experience from the time that they get inspired all the way to when the product gets delivered. It's not just only about reducing friction, it's about creating a delightful experience. And that is actually going to continue to get disrupted.

Walmart, like I said, is the company that can take care of the entire or whole customer experience. And the role of technology is to be able to enable that, in a way that only Walmart will be able to deliver.

AKIKO FUJITA: And so when we look at that and changing the shopping experience, number one, I mean, you've sort of taken a two-track approach, number one, developing technology in-house, but also partnering with those like Adobe. Let's talk about the in-house part of it. How are you determining where to put your investments? How much of this is about driving efficiencies to improve the experience? How much of it is about the shopping experience itself?

SURESH KUMAR: Absolutely. So the way in which we look at our technology investments, largely, there are three different things that we concentrate on. First, like you said, is really about the customer experience. We want to create absolutely delightful customer experiences, no matter how they shop and when they shop and where they shop. Great

Example is what we just rolled out, which is Be Your Own Model. You know, shopping for an outfit, we want to make it as fun as possible. When you're shopping for an outfit, you don't want to rely on some models that we have chosen to see what the outfit actually looks like.

So this is a technology that we have used advanced machine learning so that we know how the outfit will actually drape on your particular body. So you can be a lot more comfortable about buying that particular outfit. It reduces friction. It makes it more delightful. And it increases trust. So those are one area where we really are focused on, how to make shopping not just friction-free, but really delightful.

The second area is really about enabling our 2.3 million associates to help serve our customers better, more efficiently, so that they can focus on what they need to do best. Same types of advanced technology can be used for our associates as well. One good example is what we call VizPick.

This is where our associates can use AR to be able to be guided in the back room to figure out what products they need to pick and fold it in from the back room, bring it from the back room, and restock it on our store. It makes it very, very efficient for them. They don't need to print out a list. The system guides them. So they can focus a lot more on being efficient in what they do.

The third area is really around transforming the business through automation by extracting insights out of the huge amount of scale and data that only Walmart has got, to not just automate, but to optimize every part of our decision making, whether it is about how we choose our assortments that are local, that are customized for the market that we serve, all the way to how we price, how we mark down, to how we optimize our supply chain in real time. All of these things are enabled by the scale, the data that we have and our ability to reason over that using machine learning, using advanced models. That really allows us to be able to reduce the cost and really go back to our purpose of saving people money.

AKIKO FUJITA: And, Suresh, you just pointed on a keyword that I'm thinking about when you're talking about all these products you're rolling out, which is the collection of data. I mean, that itself is such a big commodity for so many companies. Number one, it tells you what shopper behavior is going to be like. It allows you to sell ads online against some of that. I mean, how are you thinking about the commercialization of that as you integrate technology more and more into the Walmart experience?

SURESH KUMAR: Yes. So the great thing about Walmart is that we serve our customers in a-- we talk about is the whole customer experience, right? So whether it is online, whether it's inside the stores. We saw our customers the way they want, where they want, and how they want. And this basically means that we can get a lot more insights about what is the best way to be able to serve our customers. This comes from both the whole customer experience nature as well as, obviously, the scale at which we operate.

What we are focused on take that data and turn it into insights that ultimately serve our customers better. When we talk about commercialization or when we talk about taking the data, ultimately, we want to do two things. We want to be able to serve our customers in a much more personalized, much more-- in a much deeper way. And we want to create an ecosystem, where, not just Walmart, but all of our partners and all of our suppliers and all of the ecosystem partners also benefit from that.

That is what we are trying to build out here. So that it is it's an open system. It's not a walled garden. We want everybody to be able to participate and, ultimately, benefit the customer.

AKIKO FUJITA: You are the Global CTO, I can't let you go without asking you about crypto because Walmart did make some headlines at the end of last year when you filed a number of key trademarks that appeared to point to the company's intentions to sell as well as market virtual goods. You've already got blockchain technology integrated into the system here. What's the role of crypto in Walmart's future?

SURESH KUMAR: It's a great question. I think that there are three major areas of disruption, crypto falls and sort of the middle of it. I have talked before about the way in which customers are getting inspired and discovering products, that is changing. And part of that is going to happen in the metaverse. Part of that is going to happen on live streams, inside your social media app. So whether it is physical goods or virtual goods, they play a part in terms of what the customer wants.

Crypto will become an important part of how customers transact. We want to make sure that we make it as friction-free for customers to be able to transact and to be able to buy and how they are able to derive value out of it, right? And that is where, I think, a lot of the disruption is going to start happening in terms of different payment methods, different payment options.

The role of crypto is going to continue to play a very important role in that. And obviously, we want to be there where the customer really needs us to be. The last part of it is how products get discovered, products get delivered, a lot of disruption going on over there. But when you specifically talk about crypto, it is going to be about discovery of products, whether it is physical or virtual inside either the metaverse or upfront, and then how people transact.

AKIKO FUJITA: OK. Certainly, a lot of people are going to be now looking for an announcement potentially from Walmart, at least, short, medium term. Suresh Kumar, Global CTO for Walmart, really appreciate your time today.

SURESH KUMAR: Thank you.