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Walmart’s Bold New Bet: Fostering Tech Startups to Revolutionize Retail

The retail industry has been through the wringer. Companies large and small have had to battle challenging economic conditions, inflation, and an uncertain consumer base. Among them, Walmart has made notable moves to preserve profits and trim expenses, such as cutting jobs, closing stores, and offloading assets. However, amid these challenging times, Walmart is taking a bold step toward the future.

Setting its sights on the landscape of emerging technology, Walmart has recently unveiled plans to create an accelerator program specifically for startups operating in breakthrough tech sectors such as the metaverse, artificial intelligence, and blockchain. A central goal of this innovative program is to foster the growth of decentralized e-commerce, enabling merchants to create their own native payment systems without leaning on a centralized authority.

To actualize this plan, Walmart Store No. 8, the tech incubator established by the company in 2017, is teaming up with Outlier Ventures. Together, they will provide funding and guidance to handpicked startups.

It’s no secret that the retail industry has been captivated by the prospect of harnessing tech startups to gain an early foothold in transformative technologies. Yet, the historical performance of such initiatives has been mixed, primarily because it can be tough to incorporate new innovations into large, entrenched corporate cultures that resist change.

However, Gene Han, Target’s former Chief Strategy and Innovation Officer and current advisor to startups at Sway Ventures, argues that such initiatives can offer tangible benefits. Accelerator programs, he notes, provide corporations a way to “sample” novel technology without straying too far from their core business. They also offer valuable insights to executives who might otherwise not engage with such technology in their daily roles.

But, Han cautions, success with such programs requires a long-term view. It also demands a willingness to nurture early-stage startups and pilot projects and accept that not every startup will align with the company’s needs. The ability to embrace “failure” is a crucial part of experimenting with emerging technology, he suggests.

Historically, retailers’ interest in tech startups has been somewhat cyclical. When companies face financial hardship, they tend to focus more on core operations, and budgets for “innovation and emerging experimentation” come under scrutiny. However, corporations that consistently explore new ventures, like Amazon, Google, and Apple, have established reputations as industry innovators.

Walmart, with its bold new accelerator program, appears to be vying for a spot on that illustrious list. Through nurturing tech startups that might disrupt the retail industry, the company is not just cutting costs, but investing in the future of retail. The impact of this ambitious move remains to be seen, but it undeniably marks Walmart’s commitment to innovation and forward-thinking strategy.