Walmart’s Anshu Bhardwaj on AI and the retailer’s role as a global tech leader

Retail Gets Real episode 333: Fostering innovation that serves the customer
Sheryll Poe
NRF Contributor

Most people know Walmart as a global omnichannel retailer. But it is also a leader in technology. Walmart is actually many different technology companies combined, according to Anshu Bhardwaj, vice president and COO of Walmart Global Technology.

There’s the ecommerce component, of course, but there’s also technology to support cybersecurity, advertising, customer data, real estate, computer vision, financial services, and so much more, Bhardwaj says.

“I say we are 17 different technology companies, combined into one, in service of helping customers save money so they can live better,” she says on this episode of the Retail Gets Real podcast recorded live from Retail’s Big Show.

Bhardwaj, who has been with Walmart for 14 years, was part of the mergers and acquisition team that aggressively pursued and purchased a number of tech companies between 2010 and 2014. “We were very strategic about who we would acquire,” she says. “We started off by saying if we really want to change in engineering, we have to have big names with big products, with big ideas.”

That strategy led to the acquisition of a company called Kosmix in 2011, which then became Walmart Labs. “I think that gave us a great launching pad to acquire the rest of the companies, which were — some of them were very specific. Like … only doing fraud protection, or we are a two-person team that’s only building the UI for mobile apps,” she says.

All this technology has allowed Walmart to create a seamless shopping experience for customers, Bhardwaj says. “To foster innovation and creativity, you always have to be grounded in what are you trying to do and for whom. For us, it starts with the customer.  Anything that we do is in service of our customers.”

With that in mind, Bhardwaj says she challenges her teams and colleagues to find new ways to blend their retail acumen with technology to meet customers’ needs. She points to Sam Club’s Scan and Go, which launched chainwide in September 2016.

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“The technology was there. You had technology for computer vision. You had technology for in-app payments. You had technology to do the machine learning behind the scenes, but tech by itself was not sufficient because what are you going to do with it,” she says.

Luckily, a product manager knew exactly what it would be good for. “People love to come to a Sam’s Club,” the manager realized, she says. “’They love shopping, but they don’t want to stand in a checkout line. What can I do with the tech I have?’ So, he had the domain expertise,” she says.

“He was visiting the stores … seeing what the pain points were, and he was able to bring this all together.”

Listen to the full podcast to hear Bhardwaj’s thoughts about how to foster innovation, the desire to learn and discover in the age of AI, how Walmart is using technology to cater to the different generations’ shopping preferences, and what she loves most about her job.

Episode transcript, edited for clarity

Bill Thorne: Welcome to Retail Gets Real, where we hear from retail’s most fascinating leaders about the industry that impacts everyone, everywhere, every day. I’m Bill Thorne from the National Retail Federation, coming to you from NRF 2024: Retail’s Big Show in New York City.

And on today’s episode, we’re talking to Walmart’s Anshu Bhardwaj. Anshu is the senior vice president and COO for Walmart Global Technology and Walmart Commerce Technologies. We’re going to talk about her career journey at Sam’s and Walmart, and how Walmart is using emerging technologies.

Anshu Bhardwaj. Welcome to Retail Gets Real.

Anshu Bhardwaj: Thank you, Bill. It’s fantastic to be here.

Thorne: So good to have you here. Tell us a little bit about your career, how you got started, and, why the technology route in retail?

Bhardwaj: I’ve always been in retail in some shape or form. Right now, I’m with a retailer, Fortune One retailer. I’m absolutely fortunate.

But I got my start after my undergrad in mathematics. I decided to go a very unconventional route in India, and I did a master’s in fashion management. And that was an industry which was just opening up in India back then, and I thought this would be interesting with brands and exports and everything. So, I started off with a company which was a supplier to companies like Walmart, and after I did that, I had a very interesting encounter with our CFO, and I thought, ‘He runs the company.’ And I was like, ‘I want to be that. I want to run the company.’

Thorne: Of course.

Bhardwaj: So, of course, you know what I did seven years later — after having been a buyer at Nike, after having done consulting for retailers, after having worked in retail for seven years — I decided to do an MBA (my second MBA) in finance.

Thorne: Second MBA?

Bhardwaj: Yeah. You know, why not?

Thorne: I’m bored … .

Bhardwaj: My husband’s got a PhD. Gotta catch up, you know?

Thorne: There you go. So, do two MBAs equal a PhD?

Bhardwaj: I think it does. I tell my kids all the time, it does, and I’m smarter than him. Although he’s smarter than me. But I went to Chicago … .

Thorne: One more MBA. That’s all you need.

Bhardwaj: That’s all I need. And I get a hat trick.

Thorne: Yeah, that’s it.

Bhardwaj: Yeah, that’s it. So yeah, so I did that. I went to Chicago, and it was absolutely fantastic. I had a change of heart. I wanted to become an investment banker, and this was 2008. And you know, 2008 was not an easy year, not for the faint of the heart. I think this is where your upbringing, your values, everything comes in at that moment in time. You’re just … you know, you feel like all the world is crashing down on you because you don’t have a job suddenly.

But I went through it and I was very determined. I knew that retail is something that I know. I had learned finance along the way, which was actually, in hindsight, the best decision I’ve ever made when it comes to education for the purpose of working in a company. It gave me a completely new perspective on how things operate and how to become a better merchant. For instance, because when I was doing merchandising at Nike, I was just a buyer, and I was just buying and selling, and yes, there was a P&L and yes, we were doing retail accounting, and cost accounting, but that’s what it was. But when you suddenly learn the basics of finance and P&Ls, and how cashflow is different from your everyday operating income, it just gives you a whole different perspective.

But anyway, investment banking was not a very good field at that point in time to be in, so I changed directions, just like anybody would do. Let’s just go back to what you know, and that was retail. So, I joined Target and I was in Minneapolis for a year. My husband’s like, ‘Yeah, this is not working out for me.’

Thorne: As you can tell, I’m not, I’m not a cold weather person … so Chicago to Minneapolis. It’s like from cold to really cold.

Bhardwaj: Really cold, I know. So, he, after six months, packed his bags and moved out west to California.

Thorne: Wow.

Bhardwaj: And he said, ‘You come when you can.’ So that’s a great start to a marriage, right? We had just been married only three or four years. I’m like, ‘Oh, OK, awesome. I’ll see you when I see you.’

But I was very fortunate. Walmart was hiring at that time. This was 2009, and there was a lot of investment that Walmart was putting in ecommerce, and I think that’s what got my start into technology. I have an undergrad in mathematics, which naturally gives me the inclination towards systems, and systems thinking, and how do you design for something that is going to stand the test of time for those of people, you know, who know mathematics. They’re like,’ OK, how do you have a theorem? How do you create a theorem? How do you prove a theorem or disprove it?’

And so that really stuck with me, so I started there and then for the last 14 years I’ve been with Walmart, and I’ve seen three different transitions of the company — transformations rather — of the company. The first one being: How do we become really good at ecommerce?

The second one being: How do we take all of the learnings we have, combine what technology brings to us, which is from a product lens, and apply that to a retail lens?

And then the third one is the current role that I’m in, which is now we are completely transforming the entire company from head to-toe. Again, obviously standing on the shoulders of the investments we’ve had in the last, 14 years, 15 years. But it’s truly global. So that’s, that’s how it’s been so far.

Thorne: It’s interesting because in the time that I was there, ecommerce was really just becoming something that we needed to really focus on as a company, as a retailer to be competitive because others that may have had a little bit of a head start were moving full steam ahead while some others were still trying to figure it out.

And it is an amazing testament to those in leadership who said, ‘We got to do whatever we need to do. We’re going to try things. We’re going to fail. We’re going to try things. We’re going to succeed. We’re going to build on the success. We’re going to learn from the failures and move on.’ And I think that the, obviously that attitude, that commitment has really paid off.

Bhardwaj: Absolutely. And I think I was a very, you know, I was like a senior manager director back then, when I saw the strategy that we had on, that got presented to the board for ecommerce, and it was called Global eCommerce. Back then, it was, ‘People, product, geography.’ I was like, ‘Huh, OK. I mean, anybody can do that, right?’

But you‘re spot on. It was a substance behind that. Do we have the right people and in what function? That‘s an equally critical, important question to ask because if you have to succeed in ecommerce, you have to have engineers who can help you scale. Who can help you build experiences really quickly. Who can help keep up with the times.

You have to have the product in final selection, and you have to have the right geographies you want to be present in. So, we ended up acquiring almost 14 companies in that duration between 2010 to 2014. We were very strategic about who we would acquire. I was on the M&A team, so I got to know all the inner workings. We started off by saying if we really want to change in engineering, we have to have big names with big products, with big ideas. So, we acquired a company called Kosmix, which then became Walmart Labs, and in Silicon Valley, Walmart Labs is still very well known.

I think that gave us a great launching pad to then acquire the rest of the companies, which were — some of them were very specific, like we are only doing fraud protection, or we are a two-person team that‘s only building the UI for mobile apps. So, things like that. I think big kudos to the entire leadership team back then, because like you said, some of them were hit, some of them were a miss, but they stuck with it.

Thorne: Yep. Sticking with it was the big part of it. I, I remember visiting those offices actually, south of San Francisco …

Bhardwaj: Yeah, that’s right. Exactly. San Bruno.

Thorne: I’ve heard you describe Walmart as 17 different tech companies combined into one. Why is it so important for consumers to know that Walmart is a technology company?

Bhardwaj: So that’s my favorite quote — which I came up with — 17. If you think about Walmart, we are a retailer that has health and wellness. We sell merchandise. We have a financial services arm. We have Marketplace. We have Walmart Connect. We have advertising. We have Walmart Commerce Technologies, which I lead, and we are selling our tech to other retailers. So, if you go across the entire spectrum, if you were to look outside Walmart, there would be 17 distinct engineering companies servicing the engineering needs of each of these segments.

Just take real estate: something that nobody even thinks about. But to make your real estate plans, where would you put your FTCs? Where would you put your stores? Where would you, what would you put in those? All of these are things where you need acumen by yourself. There’s operational acumen. There’s retail acumen. But at the end of the day, it’s all coming together because of technology, and that’s why I think we are 17 different tech companies combined into one.

You add cybersecurity on top. You add customer data on top. You add computer vision, which is then powering a lot of the experiences on top. So, that’s why I say we are 17 different technology companies combined into one in service of helping customers save money so they can live better.

 Thorne: The interesting thing is, a number of years ago, Jeff Bezos was asked if he was a retailer. He said, ‘No, I’m a technologist.’ Several years ago, Doug McMillan was asked if he is a technologist. He said, ‘I am a technologist and I am a retailer.’ I don’t think you can really split the two. I mean, they’re one thing now. It’s not omnichannel. It’s one seamless approach to retail.

Bhardwaj: I think it’s a very complex business and it’s becoming even more complex because like you said, technology and retail are not two separate things. Even at NRF — I mean half the floor is technology companies trying to sell to lead retailers to say, ‘Use us so that we can make you better and make it easier for your customers to shop.’

Thorne: Yep, yep.

Bhardwaj: So, I don’t think that those two are very different things. However Amazon might work, I mean, I never worked there. But I do think from our standpoint, we are a people-led, tech-powered retailer in the service of helping customers save money so they can live better. We are an omnichannel retailer.

In order to do that, in order to make your experience seamless as a customer, we want to make sure that we have your data in a seamless fashion. We can use it when we want it. So, if you’re in a store — and I don’t know if you’ve been in a Walmart store recently — but if you open your app, the walmart.com app or the Walmart app, it’ll basically flip to a store mode. And what the store mode does is it’ll automatically tell you, ‘You are in the store.’ You don’t want to shop for, you know, this random thing that you were going to look online, but you are probably going to look for what’s in what aisle. You’re probably going to look for Walmart Pay.

So, there are these experiences that happen only in the store, which you will look for if you’re opening your app in the store. And of course, we will give you search, and of course, we will give you checkout, and of course, we’ll give you the full catalog of what exists online. But these are not two distinct things anymore.

So, which is for us, you know, to say we are a people-led, tech-powered omnichannel retailer, and that’s who we are. We are not in the sake of just having tech for tech’s sake. Tech has to have a purpose. It has to serve our customers. It has to serve our associates. It has to serve our partners, like our suppliers and our sellers. And then when you wrap it all up, it’s 17 different things coming together to make that one experience seamless.

Thorne: And that’s why I love it. When you talk about tech really helping the consumer, you’re helping all kinds of consumers. It’s not just the consumer that wants to find the best price. It’s the consumer that wants to maximize their time, and ensure that they’re getting what they need, in the time that they want to spend getting it.

I think it’s fascinating. And I think also technology — in and of itself, and its impact on retail, on the consumer, on prices, on the services — has really just been explosive in the last, even, five years. But how do you foster focus and creativity at the same time with your team?

Bhardwaj: I think … You’ve been there. You’ve been at Walmart. You know the cheer.

Thorne: Sure. Yes, I know the cheer …

Bhardwaj: It ends with, ‘Who’s number one? The customer always.’ And the who.

Thorne: Yes.

Bhardwaj: But the relevant portion is ‘the customer always.’ And I think for us … to foster innovation and creativity, you always have to be grounded in what are you trying to do and for whom. For us, it starts with the customer. Anything that we do is in service of our customers. And I think about four years ago, when Doug updated his one-pager on strategy, he added stakeholders, and stakeholders includes associates. It includes our communities. It includes the planet. It includes our suppliers, everybody that we do business with.

If you start with the customer and the associate, the rest of it falls into place, because we are all a part of this planet. We are all a part of some community or the other. We all have similar aspirations and values. We can be different, but mainly, you know, live and let live.

So, if you start with the customer. You identify: What are the pain points? What could be delighters? Similarly, for associates, we are in a different time. There’s been Baby Boomers, Gen X, Gen Z, Millennials, Natives, this, that. Now, we are on Gen Alpha, I heard is the latest.

Thorne: I know, I know. I can’t keep up with it. I really can’t.

Bhardwaj: Yeah, I mean, that’s okay. As long as — I think the key in all of this is — yes, there are all these acronyms, but there are different motivations for each generation. I’ll give you an example. When I travel with my dad, he wants to carry his own stuff and when he’s shopping. I don’t have the time. He has the time. So, his motivation is, ‘I need to fill my time and therefore I will go shopping.’ My motivation is, ‘I do not have the time, therefore, my shopping has to make it super convenient for me.’

Solutions for both — and we have both those people that coexist, those shoppers, right? My dad’s shopping at Walmart, I’m shopping at Walmart — and the solutions for both, those are very different.

Which is where, if you start with the customer need, and therefore associated with that, the associate need, I think you arrive at a very different position. I think the key to making sure that innovation, creativity, flow throughout the organization, you have to be a domain expert. Whether you’re on the technology side, whether you’re in the retail side, you have to be a domain expert.

Now, if you’re an in-home or if you’re an online grocery pickup and delivery, you don’t need to know the inner workings of how the commerce website is running. But you need to know what is relevant enough for the customer that’s coming in, because if you are doing online pickup and grocery, and you were having trouble getting your time slot, you’re not going to tell the CTO of the company. You’re going to tell the associate in front of you, ‘This didn’t work. I don’t like it.’

So, I think that’s how, if you become an expert in your domain … for the technologist who’s working on that feature, if they are in the store, they’re using it themselves, I think it unleashes a whole set of different products.

I’ll give you an example, which I’m super proud of. When we were at Sam’s Club, we launched something called Scan and Go. OK, we started work on it in the fall or winter of 2015. And we were chainwide at Sam’s Club by September of 2016. The fastest launch we’ve ever had. But the technology was there. You had technology for computer vision. You had technology for in-app payments. You had technology to do the machine learning behind the scenes, but tech by itself was not sufficient because what are you going to do with it?

But the smart product manager who was sitting there, he’s like, ‘Oh, people love to come to a Sam’s Club. They love shopping, but they don’t want to stand in a checkout line. What can I do with the tech I have?’ So, he had the domain expertise. He was visiting the stores, he was seeing everything — or clubs rather — seeing what the pain points were, and he was able to bring this all together.

I think that’s the piece from an innovation standpoint, and I also think keeping an eye out on what’s happening outside of your company. Inspiration for innovation doesn’t always come just from your own experiences. It’s the ecosystem around you.

This was my favorite example I used to give to my team, that if you open up your phone, look at the apps you have on your first and second screen. That’s where you are spending time outside of shopping at Sam’s Club, and if those experiences are better [than] your Sam’s Club experiences, you know, there’s a lot to be learned from that. So continuously learn from the ecosystem around you to see what can be implemented within your system.

And I think the third thing is data. If you don’t understand the data, then you’d be chasing the wrong things. If you don’t understand the relationship between inputs and outputs, you’d be chasing the wrong things. So are all these other inner workings, which again, this is where my finance and my math hat comes in. One plus one should equal to two. If it’s equaling something else, then either I need to learn, or that thing is wrong.

Thorne: Right, right, right. You know, the reason I get a little animated with Scan and Go is, you know, ideas in corporate worlds take forever to get implemented. I mean, you know, there’s always testing, particularly in retail. There’s testing, and you got to do this, and so it can take forever to get it to, you know, scale. My recollection of Scan and Go, it was like an idea, it was tried and they were like, ‘Let’s go. Let’s get it done.’ And it was a pretty, pretty big deal in a very, very short period.

Bhardwaj: Very short period of time. February is when we were testing in faith. Well, I think April is when we showed the leadership team, Don Friesen, I still remember, he was leading operations. And at the end of the meeting, he was like, ‘When can we go to the chain?’ I’m like, ‘We are not ready.

Thorne: You don’t hear that very often. At all.

Bhardwaj: You don’t hear that very often.

Thorne: So, 2024, and we say a lot — I say a lot on Retail Gets Real — that retail operates on the pace of change. It’s always changing. Always changing. 2024 technology … some of the new technologies that are out there, and I’m not going to say AI, but let’s just say AI. What does that mean for retail? What does that mean for the way that you’re looking at implementing some of these new technologies into the store experience?

Bhardwaj: I think, sticking with AI just because AI — it is going to fundamentally change every aspect of retail, and not just retail, every industry. I think AI is really good at scaling things. Very good at generating content. Very good at things like summarization. Things that — well, I don’t know about you, but I never like to write a seven-page long document and then get the key points in a very crisp fashion — that takes a long time. Writing the seven-pager is a shorter effort as compared to writing the summary of that seven-pager. AI can do it for you.

If I’m a product manager, I’m trying to research something. I first go onto a different browser, look for something that leads me to another link, to another link. Then I create my, you know, P&L with it, and I create my competitive set with it. All the things that a product manager has to do. AI applied correctly can give you a good enough 75% draft. That just saved me all this time, and I can actually apply my context of my business, and my knowledge of my customers to the 75% draft.

If you think about developers. Obviously, you know, they’re using coding assistance of all different shapes and forms. You think about customers? I don’t think any customer’s going to raise their hand and say, ‘I love being on an IVR.’ By the time I get from one for this, two for this, nine for this, I’m like, ‘What was I doing exactly? And which number do I need?’ You know, then you play the whole thing again, and try to remember the numbers.

So, I think there are all these experiences which can be created completely friction-free for customers. There are all these areas in which — associates, again, across any industry — can really become way more productive than what they are today, and actually take time away from things that they found to be monotonous, mundane, irrespective.

So, I do think that AI is going to fundamentally change … . For us, it’s embedded everywhere. All the examples I gave you, we are using AI. We’ve been on the AI journey for the last five [or] seven-plus years. And in fact, we actually won a recognition from an industry-leading INFORMS organization. We got the Edelman Award for our supply chain advancements using AI. And not just writing a paper. It was actually implementing it in the Walmart context, so you can imagine the change management that went with it.

And then we are constantly thinking about new ways to implement different forms of AI. An example I gave earlier this morning is something called ‘Me at Campus.’ Now, in all of [our] customer focus and associate focus, people forget about, you know, people like you and I who are sitting in the home office or the corporate campus, and they’re like, ‘Yeah, they’ll continue doing their work with whatever they’re doing, whatever tools they have’ or not.

Me at Campus puts AI in your pocket. You go into the app. It’s your assistant. You can ask it to summarize documents. It can even make you a poet, if you’re trying to be clever in your presentation. It can give you access to any of your benefits, information by state, by county. So, it has a lot of power that’s suddenly coming to your pocket. So, I think there are applications everywhere.

Thorne: AI seems to me to be something where it is creating efficiencies and time. Does it in any way detract from the challenge of learning — you, as individuals — learning in the process and then being able to make that decision not because you’re being told through AI, ‘This is the right answer,’ but because you’ve reached the right answer through research?

Bhardwaj: I think I’m going to butcher the stats on this, and the person who said this, but I think it was Eric Schmidt who probably said that up until the year 1800, a person processed X amount of information in their entire lifetime. We do that in a day. And they were learning certain, you know, first principles of physics and creating things. So are we. I think human creativity and human imagination: We thrive on that, right? That’s how that whole race has evolved, and stuck and, you know, been successful.

I think AI superpowers the way in which you learn, because now you can have — again, relevant, succinct context, information — and then you still have to ask the whys. I think the questions of the five whys, and the reasoning, is really what will make the learning better. Not whether you have learning in an encyclopedia or if you’re able to get that in two minutes.

If you were to ask a person, again in the 1800s, what God would look like, and if information were one of their things, they’d be like, ‘Oh yeah, God knows everything.’ I am God today from that standpoint, right? Because I have the phone in my hand. I can ask the phone anything and I will know it. Now, do I need to invent all of that? Probably not. But if I’m curious, then I can learn whatever I want on top of it.

Thorne: It’s amazing. What do you love most about your job?

Bhardwaj: I love it that we are so customer-focused and I’m a customer myself, which makes me feel very special. I also love that Walmart is very focused on using technology in the right ways. We were, in fact, one of the first ones to come up with the Responsible AI Pledge. We have a Digital Citizenship team, which is, again, I don’t think a lot of companies in the industry have that, so we are very focused on becoming the trusted retailer.

We are pushing the boundaries. We are no longer just content with being an omnichannel retailer. We are thinking about it from an adaptive lens, so we want to be an adaptive retailer, meaning depending upon your context, your situation, your needs, your wants, we basically get you what you need in a very easy time, convenient fashion without losing our promise of value and convenience. An example is: It’s not just ecommerce and brick-and-mortar anymore, but things like text-to-shop, things like in-home …

Similarly, we are very focused on our associates. (I think you probably wanted one, but I’m giving you everything that I like about the company.)

Thorne: I love it.

Bhardwaj: The focus on associates, you know, they care. Walmart cares as much about me as about the front-line associate, as about the driver, as about … everybody who’s making the dream come real for customers.

Thorne: What is the best piece of career advice you’ve ever gotten?

Bhardwaj: I’m going to say two. One is be a sponge. I love learning. Sometimes learning for learning’s sake, sometimes learning to be applied in a leader situation, but I love …

Thorne: You’ve got two MBAs. Of course, you like …

Bhardwaj: You had to bring that back.

Thorne: I don’t know a lot of people that have two MBAs. It’s just … it’s very impressive.

Bhardwaj: Yeah. And in two different fields.

Thorne: You love to learn.

Bhardwaj: I do love to learn, yes, and I think that’s obviously helped me. The second piece of advice I got is: Don’t take either silence or no for an answer. This is my dad. My dad’s like, ‘If you don’t ask, the answer’s always no.’

And it didn’t stick with me up until five or seven years ago because I had kids, and they’re constantly asking you for things, and they’re constantly asking you for something on the same point. So, they’re taking it a step further — even if the answer is no, keep asking. But my dad’s like, ‘If you don’t ask, the answer is no, and therefore opportunities will pass you by.’ So, I love that piece of advice.

Thorne: Yep. He’s a brilliant dad.

Bhardwaj: He is. And so is my mom.

Thorne: Anshu, it has been an extraordinary pleasure talking with you and spending time with you. Thank you so very much.

Bhardwaj: Likewise, Bill. I hope we get to spend more time together.

Thorne: I do, too. And thank you all for listening to another episode of Retail Gets Real. You can find more information about this episode at retail gets real dot com.

From Retail’s Big Show in New York City here at the heart of the Javits Center. This is Bill Thorne and this is Retail Gets Real. Thanks again for listening. Until next time.

 

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