The line between retail and technology, already blurred by big data, the IoT, and digital shopping and buying habits, is growing fainter still as retailers become increasingly active investors in the tech market.
On Monday, Walmart said that it’s launching a tech incubator to invest in robotics, augmented and virtual reality, machine learning, artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies.
Walmart has invested in or bought other startups in the past, but the company said the latest initiative is about “making big bets on the ideas that will transform the future of retail.”
The innovation hub is called Store No. 8, after an early experimental store Walmart founder Sam Walton used for new ideas.
“We are creating an ecom incubator and budgeting capital to build startups,” Marc Lore, president and CEO of Walmart.com and founder of Walmart-acquired Jet.com, said at the Shoptalk conference in Las Vegas. “It’ll be wholly owned by Walmart but made of independent companies.”
Lore promised that those startups will be empowered to make their own decisions, just as Jet.com was after its $3 billion sale to Walmart in September.
Walmart is far from the only retailer making bets on startups.
Discount rival Target last summer embedded 10 tech startups at its Minneapolis headquarters as part of its Target+Techstars accelerator program.
“More and more there’s a blurring of line” between retail and technology, Target CEO Brian Cornell said in an interview. “Technology is so important to what we do…. It comes back to the way consumers interact with our brands. Sometimes it’s physical. Sometimes it’s digital. We’ve got to make sure we are there at the intersection.”
Cornell contrasted Target’s approach to Walmart’s “big bets” stance: Target wants to “make sure there’s an application” for its business with its investment, such as that of tech startup, Inspectorio, which guides supply chain inspectors using mobile platforms. Cornell told eMarketer Inspectorio has helped to give Target “greater confidence in the products we are buying.”