How Store No. 8 Does Research
A candid conversation with Anna Harman, Director of New Ventures and Rachel Reid, Associate, New Ventures on “Incubation and the Role of Research.” We’re diving deeper into our research process: the who, what, where, and how of how Store No. 8 researches “out in the wild.”
Before looking at how we actually do the research, let’s set the stage a bit. What makes Store No. 8 different with respect to research? First, we are not a think tank or a lab, and we certainly don’t do research for research’s sake. Instead, we conduct research in order to refine our point of view on the future of retail. Our goal is to use that research to make an informed and specific recommendation to the broader enterprise about key capabilities Walmart needs to be developing to win. Ultimately, the research is meant to inform the Walmart of today so we can build the Walmart of tomorrow.
How does Store No. 8 approach research?
Rachel Reid: We approach it a bit differently. Instead of asking “how do we apply emerging technology?” to the current retail structure, we start by looking at the whitespace and working backwards. Our digital or physical customer nodes could look very different 5 to 10 plus years from now, so starting from our current context is not useful for these purposes. We have to look out into the future and create a perspective on how a given technology will impact our day to day lives and business at that point. Only after developing that perspective, can we work backwards and ask ourselves how the technology could affect the Walmart of today.
Who does the research?
Anna Harman: Everyone on the team, which works because the Store No. 8 organization has a very flat org structure. In order to form an educated opinion about the future of retail, each individual has to do at least some research no matter what his or her level. The nature of the research is such that it isn’t really something you could just sit at home and do, or have someone that works for you report back on. To do it well, you need to be out in the market, thinking as a consumer, seeing the capabilities and technologies up close and personal to really live and breathe their future application.
What is the first step?
AH: Whenever we start a research project, we usually start with a hypothesis or theory that we are trying to better understand. We’re not starting from pure scratch. Even if it’s vague or fuzzy, there is something that we’re trying to solve for. This narrowing gives us some parameters so we can tailor the investigation’s scope.
RR: For example, when we began investigating virtual reality, we asked ourselves, “Can VR provide a better shopping experience than current physical or digital offerings?” We frame questions in the context of retail to help us understand the market because we’re always thinking about the future Walmart customer. As we uncovered more throughout our research phase, the question changed.
Where do you start?
RR: There are two different groups that I look to when starting research -- internal and external. Internally, there is often a lot of knowledge already within the Walmart ecosystem because many groups have been thinking about some of the same topics on a nearer term time horizon. We tap into this network and get in touch with anyone and everyone who might have a point of view or who we can learn from, as we certainly don’t want to reinvent the wheel if good thinking or research has happened already. This tends to be a great starting place.
Externally, we look to a couple of sources. We have a good network of venture capitalists and other investors in New York and Silicon Valley who have very informed points of view on the specific technology or capability. We have conversations with them to gain their perspective, and hear which companies or players we should be talking to in order to learn more. We also reach out to other major technology companies and exchange views on what we’re seeing and what they’re seeing.
AH: Additionally, you have to always be open-minded and maintain your consumer point of view. For example, when attending conferences and demos, you should go experience things as you would as a consumer. You also need to talk with everyone that you can. Anyone who will discuss with you how a given capability or technology might develop, you should connect with. Hearing others’ point of view will only help to diversify your own understanding.
Where does the research come from?
RR: We really geek out and go deep. In the case of VR, we examined it inside and out and really got into the hardware as well as looked at the content that was available. We started to develop a perspective on what makes good VR (versus not) and got really excited about the possibility to impact retail.
AH: For everything else we are investigating, if you’re scrappy and determined enough to see the thing you’re trying to learn about, you’ll figure out a way. Additionally, there are often companies that are not working directly on what we are investigating, but are reliant on the emerging technology or capability. They also tend to be a good source of research and are often the most informed because the capability is a key input or unlocker to what they are building.
Any key challenges in during the research Store No. 8?
RR: I think the hardest part (but also the most fun) is synthesizing all the conversations with the various parties and parsing out what is important to our strategy as a retailer. But if anything, I would say that being part of Store No. 8 has made doing market research a lot easier compared to other jobs I have had, mainly because we are backed by Walmart. People are willing to talk to us because they are interested in what Walmart is doing and how we are thinking about the space. The Walmart name, combined with our narrative, is very impactful. It gives us a larger breadth of people we can learn from and who are also learning from us.
How do you know you’re done?
RR: I don’t think you can ever be finished. You test the current tech in the real world, and often you perform a proof of concept for your application. Once we’ve executed that or a similar pilot, only then can we really feel that we have a strong enough perspective to make a recommendation. But in many ways, the research is never complete as there are always new ideas coming to light, practical applications to observe and experience, and besides -- we always need to be evolving our perspective.
Throughout our incubation process, research plays a key role in realizing our vision. Without research, we wouldn’t have a clear picture of where the world is today, nor the endless possibilities for the future. Our goal is to ‘Ignite the Change that Changes Everything,’ and research is our guiding light.