By Carlo Versano
John Furner, the president and CEO of big-box retailer Sam's Club, is joining other retailers in realizing the power of mobile technology to eliminate the "friction" from the shopping experience.
The Walmart-owned ($WMT) chain was among the first to sink money into R&D when Amazon ($AMZN) teased its first cashier-less store concept. The first Sam's Club Now store that used similar wireless technology paired with machine learning and mobile applications opened in Dallas in November.
But while the AmazonGo concept is built around a convenience-store type model, which assumes customers might pop in for a few small items, Sam's Club operates with a different concept, for a different customer. To that end, Furner said, it has found ways to use cutting-edge tech ー like "computer vision," where a phone camera recognizes items in a shopper's cart and allows them to scan and pay ー in ways that Sam's Club members find valuable. (Think big, bulky items that require a lot of maneuvering in order to find the barcode.)
"We're letting the camera on the phone do the work the same way your eyes would," he told Cheddar.
Sam's Club Now prototypes also deploy digital shelf tag technology and Bluetooth beacons to help members find what they're looking for ー not always the easiest thing to do in the store's cavernous aisles. The idea, Furner said, is to let members enter the store and let the technology guide them to the items on their shopping lists.
Furner said he hopes the added benefit of a more seamless shopping experience will mean more members who pop in for smaller items or shorter shopping lists, which would pit the brand directly against the AmazonGo chain.
Sam's Club, which reported a more than 6 percent bump in traffic during its fourth quarter, has been busy innovating. Furner pointed to the brand's partnership with Instacart for delivery ー cheaper and faster than building out its own urban delivery network ー and its latest offering: free shipping on most items for premium members, à la Amazon Prime.
Furner, who started as a Walmart clerk 25 years ago, said he is laser-focused on ways to make the shopping experience easier for the target Sam's Club customer: suburban, two-car households, often small business owners, with an income between $75,000 and $125,000. "They want us to remove the friction," he said.
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