To catch up, Wal-Mart moves to Amazon turf

Oct 21 2013, 10:57 IST
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SummaryA plucky Silicon Valley company, forced to compete for talented engineers, is trying it all.

Bruno, it was white asparagus panna cotta with house-smoked salmon tartar, morel mushroom macaroons and charcuterie from a whole pig. Borrowing a page from Google and Twitter, the company offers hack days when engineers can work on whatever they want.

The changes are more than cosmetic, though. This year, @WalmartLabs has gone on a start-up shopping spree, buying four companies — Torbit, OneOps, Tasty Labs and Inkiru — that build things like tools to crunch data and speed up websites. The acquisitions included some of the start-ups’ founders and engineers, the time-honoured way for Silicon Valley companies to hire the talented employees they need to build better web and mobile tools.

Wal-Mart has hundreds of open jobs at its office here. This summer, the company hired 150 people from companies like Yahoo and eBay.

The company’s pitch to engineers is that Wal-Mart moves quickly and has huge problems to solve, even if it is not a nimble newcomer or a buzzworthy start-up.

“There’s big data and there’s Wal-Mart big data,” said Ravi Raj, vice-president for mobile and social products at @WalmartLabs. “Every week we release half a dozen features.”

Rick Devine, chief executive of TalentSky, a Silicon Valley recruiting firm that has recruited for the company before, said Wal-Mart’s scale was attractive to young engineers. Still, he said, the competition is fierce.

“The kind of people they’re going to be looking for — big data and e-commerce type of people — those are the same kinds of people Silicon Valley cares about,” he said.

Amazon, which is based in Seattle, also has a Silicon Valley presence; its Lab126 research company, located a few miles from Apple’s headquarters, developed the Kindle and is working on other mobile devices. Amazon is a much bigger player online, with $74.4 billion in revenue expected for 2013. While Wal-Mart’s total revenue is close to $500 billion, it has said it expects just a fraction of that, $10 billion, in e-commerce revenue for the year ending January 2014.

Walmart.com had 62.5 million unique visitors in August, compared with Amazon’s 133 million, according to Compete, which tracks web use.

“Amazon is the Wal-Mart of the post-2000 period,” said Matt Nemer, an analyst at Wells Fargo.

Wal-Mart was slow to embrace online shopping, keeping its web operations separate and haltingly adopting new technology. These days, though, it is trying to turn its 4,100 stores in the US and

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