South by Southwest isn't just about music, film and other media entertainment. The biggest retailer in the world will be at SXSW in Austin this year, selling itself as a tech company.
Walmart's chief technology officer, Jeremy King, is taking the stage at the annual conference to walk audience members through the latest technology — like virtual reality headsets and machine-learning-powered robots — it's using in stores to get online grocery orders to customers as quickly as possible.
Since its inception in Arkansas in 1962, Walmart has arguably struggled to fit the bill as a "modern" retailer. Many consumers still think about the company's Southern roots, its everyday low prices and warehouse-like store formats, when they think of Walmart. Meanwhile, Walmart's biggest competitor, Amazon, is gobbling up U.S. e-commerce sales as it innovates with tech like its Alexa-enabled Echo devices, where consumers can shop just using their voice. That's about as "modern" as a retailer can get.
"One of the hardest parts [about my job] ... people all have their own perceptions of Walmart," King told CNBC, ahead of his panel at SXSW, about his role leading Walmart Labs, the retailer's technology arm that powers its stores and e-commerce business today.
"For years now ... I've wanted people to understand we are building a tech organization," he said. "I've got a machine learning team. We have some of the best apps in the world."
King says Walmart isn't just adding technology to stores "for tech's sake." But gadgets like shelf-scanning robots are actually cutting down the time associates spend running around the floors of stores, freeing them up to talk with customers. The right machine learning can help Walmart's so-called category specialists — it's said it plans to hire roughly 2,000 such people to monitor stock levels in stores and online — find a single box of Cheerios cereal sitting on a truck before it gets to one of the retailer's distribution centers, he said.
"Everything is so real time," King explained. "We can react to [out-of-stocks] instantly. Change an order on the fly and the warehouse can send the order ... where before it could take a week."
In its latest quarter, Walmart's e-commerce sales surged 43 percent. In 2018, it achieved online sales growth of 40 percent. Considering its string of acquisitions of e-commerce companies like Jet.com, Art.com, lingerie brand Bare Necessities and plus-size retailer Eloquii — coupled with its growing online grocery business — Walmart is nothing shy of serious about investing on the internet.
Even Walmart CEO Doug McMillon keeps a photo on his phone that lists the top 10 retailers in the U.S. over the past few decades, reminding him how so many companies — like Sears — can rise to the top but then slip up and fall. He's said the picture stokes "healthy paranoia" to compete with rivals and not be afraid to take risks.
"We don't get a ton of credit for being a tech company," King said. "But we have been for a long time."