Technology taking root at Whole Foods

by Monica Watrous
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BOSTON — Whole Foods Market, Inc., is courting the digital shopper with new platforms that integrate brick-and-mortar and e-commerce.

“I think retail and technology are completely intertwined now, and that the customer is newly empowered through technology in all sorts of ways, and that will only continue to grow,” said Walter Robb, co-chief executive officer of Whole Foods, during a March 12 presentation at the UBS Global Consumer Conference in Boston. “So, in that respect, I think everybody has got to be making this investment in technology. The question becomes, what are you investing in?”

For Austin, Texas-based Whole Foods, the answer lies in two big initiatives: enterprise systems and customer-facing technology.

First, Whole Foods is working to create a unified point-of-sale platform that will seamlessly enable mobile and digital shopping.

Second, the retailer recently announced a deal with Square to streamline its checkout process. Customers who buy a few items from in-store sandwich counters or coffee bars may pay at a Square register to avoid the busier main checkout lines. Additionally, those with a Square application on a mobile device may order items in advance to pick up in the store.

“There’s all these sorts of features that could be done that a customer with the experience would start before they left the home and after they got back home,” Mr. Robb said. “So, you would start to extend the experience.”

Today’s consumer expects to engage with businesses on demand, through social media, mobile and web-based interactions and within the store’s walls, he said.

Wal-Mart recently announced a similar concept called “tethering,” which will allow the company to deliver products to its brick-and-mortar stores through on-line ordering.

“It is very clear to me that ultimately, the customer wants an integrated experience,” Mr. Robb said. “I do think this is the advantage that physical retailers have, is that we actually have a place. … You’ve got to be able to put forward an integrated strategy that customers are going to be able to — they expect to be able to — interact with you and when and where they want to in a seamless fashion. So, that is where we are trying to head to.”

Whole Foods currently is testing deliveries through Google in the Bay area with plans to expand.

“And we have some stuff working in the digital on-line space, which we haven’t yet announced,” he said. “And I think you will see the pieces of this strategy start to unfold over the next 12 months.”
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