Walmart, the international retailing behemoth, which received a shot in arm with the lifting of the ban on foreign retailers in India, recently announced the launch of a new search engine to drive sales on its website, Walmart.com.

This is particularly significant because it gives the company an advantage over other e-commerce giants such as Amazon.com, which are still barred from operating in India. Walmart, a late starter in the online trading space, would thus be in a position to exploit its synergies in the brick-and-mortar space and in the online space.

‘First of a kind’

The new search engine, Polaris, has been developed by @WalmartLabs, the multinational retailer’s tech arm, which was built on the acquisition of Kosmix, a Silicon Valley company, by Walmart in 2011. “Walmart is the first brick-and-mortar retailer to develop a dedicated search engine,” claimed Jeremy King, senior vice-president and chief technology officer of Global e-Commerce, Walmart.

Mr. King said the new search engine enables “more refined searches” made by visitors to Walmart.com. “We are already seeing a 10-15 per cent increase in the probability of a customer buying a product after searching at our website,” Mr. King said. The search engine, which uses semantic search technology, enables the company to anticipate what the customer is looking for, Mr. King said. The search engine has been developed by a team of 20 @WalmartLabs developers, five of them working from its Bangalore base.

Mr. King said the developers from Bangalore had played “a key role” in integrating analytics in order to enable better “customer acquisition and retention”.

Asked what is special about the new engine, Mr. King said its “machine learning” capabilities enable predictive and intuitive analysis of consumer behaviour. “The specialised search engine can combine multiple aspects of key words used by customers,” which enables a more nuanced understanding of what the customer is looking for, he explained.

Bangalore base

@WalmartLabs plans to scale up its workforce at its Bangalore facility from 125 to 200 by the end of the year. “This may be a small team, but it is densely talented,” Mr. King said. He said the core of @WalmartLabs agenda is to enable customers to “move seamlessly” from offline to an online environment using a diverse range of mobile devices. “Walmart has the scale, the reach and the technology to provide a seamless experience to customers,” he claimed. Data mining and analytics, Mr. King said, are being used to track consumer preferences and buying trends as reflected in social media, he said.

Mr. King said the global platform of the front end of Walmart.com would be rolled out by the end of the year.

Interestingly, Anand Rajaraman co-founded Kosmix (2005) as well as Junglee.com (1996), which pioneered Internet ‘comparison shopping’. While he went on to become Walmart vice-president and head of its e-commerce business after the super retailer acquired Kosmix in April 2011, Junglee.com was acquired by Amazon.com.

During his association with Amazon.com, Mr. Rajaraman was instrumental in bringing to fruition the concept of the Amazon Mechanical Turk, which enables programmers to use human intelligence to perform tasks that computers by themselves are still unable to do. The Mechanical Turk helps in recognising and identifying musical performers or in making “subjective” judgements while selecting photographs.

Keywords: Walmart