Walmart Labs

by Adam on June 24, 2013

And they say that old dogs can’t learn new tricks. As a recent transplant to San Francisco, I can’t help but notice the huge billboards along Highway 101 advertising the opportunity to “change the way people eat, 1,000,000,000 people at a time.” All feelings aside about what that says about mass commercialization of the food space, the proprietor of the ad-space was none other than…

Walmart Labs. 

Go figure, Walmart build a laboratory. Or a test kitchen. Or some such other playground for digital innovation where one might expect to find passionate food + tech innovators working away at the world’s food problems. Whether this picture is accurate or not, I don’t know, and just what they are working on, I don’t know either.

But, as far as I can tell, their first product to roll out of the Walmart innovation food chain is a new product called, a monthly tasting box subscription similar to the now-defunct Foodzie, Love with Food, or others that have come (and some gone) in the past 3-4 years. Looking at the website, the products include a mix of brand names and lesser-known snacks and samples, with plans starting at $7/month.

This model is of particular interest to me for two reasons:

  1. While I haven’t received a box of my own yet, based on the website, I would imagine you couldn’t tell this was a Walmart product. That certainly has implications for consumer perception around product discovery, to say nothing about the choice of product that goes into a tasting box built by one of the largest food mass merchants in the country.
  2. It does show that, even as it tries to drive prices down and cater to the mass market, a large company can and should find ways to innovate. The fact that this innovation is around food is particularly notable, as I would imagine it signals Walmart’s understanding that the next battleground for consumer loyalty may be in the food space.

As these industry behemoths continue to test the boundaries of their empires, with Google rolling out local delivery, Amazon playing with Fresh, and Walmart trying to get 1 billion people to sign up for tasting boxes, I can see two distinct futures of food unfolding, although they aren’t mutually exclusive. The first involves dominance by large players. The second involves a number of grassroots initiatives, where startups gain traction on a larger scale, with funding and expertise that gives them a competitive edge. Though, whether that doesn’t just lead them into the arms of a corporate acquirer, I don’t know.

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