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ROGERS -- Myron Burke, principal of Wal-Mart Stores Inc.'s Store No. 8, pointed to the invention of the iPhone when he considered the mission of the Bentonville company's retail technology investment arm.

Burke said the mobile device wouldn't have been created without Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Jobs' insistence that the product was something people would want, even if they didn't know it at the time.

"We're trying to go look at [retail] and say, 'What does the customer want and they just don't know it yet?'" Burke said.

Burke was one of more than 50 guest speakers to participate in the Northwest Arkansas Technology Summit held at the John Q. Hammons Center in Rogers on Tuesday. It was the fourth year of the event, which organizers expanded this year to include Monday's Women in Technology Conference. The two-day event attracted about 2,000 attendees.

Leaders from Northwest Arkansas-based companies like Wal-Mart, Tyson Foods Inc., and J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. were featured throughout the Rogers event, discussing the growing role technology plays across industries like retail, transportation, logistics, banking and farming. They were joined by leaders from IBM, AT&T, Roku and other companies for an event created to promote and support the Northwest Arkansas tech community.

Burke provided a quick glimpse inside the work taking place at Store No. 8, which Wal-Mart established as a stand-alone entity earlier this year. It was designed as a vehicle for Wal-Mart to identify, invest in and incubate emerging technologies that could be developed and used by the retailer without the pressures of an immediate return on investment.

In fact, Burke said Store No. 8 is predominantly looking at technologies that will be vital three, five or 10 years in the future.

"We use terms like 'being audacious,' 'start with the end in mind' and 'what if,'" Burke said. "That's really what Store No. 8 is designed to do. ... Drive after opportunities that we didn't think existed and may not be on the road map and to incubate and experiment in an insulated environment, but with the power and the data of one of the world's largest retailers behind you."

Burke would not discuss specific projects Store No. 8 is working on during his presentation Tuesday. But some of the areas outlined previously as emerging technologies -- and that were among the topics discussed over the two-day event -- include virtual and augmented reality, machine learning, robotics and artificial intelligence.

"With increased customer expectations and pressure from Amazon, the time is now for retailers to invest in advanced technology," Brad Bogolea, chief executive officer of California-based Simbe Robotics, said during a session on how brick-and-mortar retailers are using advanced technologies like sensors and robotics to reinvent themselves and the customer experience. "That investment is what's really going to separate those that make it out to the next step and those that don't."

Jeremy King, Wal-Mart's chief technology officer, said during an afternoon keynote session that the retailer has "really invested heavily in technology" in its attempt to stay ahead of the curve and compete with Amazon.

King pointed to the services produced by Wal-Mart's emphasis on technology. Grocery pickup -- in which customers order groceries online, drive to the store and have them brought out to their cars by employees -- is available at about 1,000 stores and will roll out to 1,000 more by the end of fiscal 2018. Wal-Mart also has installed orange towers in some stores in an effort to quickly dispense packages ordered by customers. Wal-Mart has recently partnered with Google to begin voice-automated shopping and is using technology to speed up the return process.

"We spend a ton of time talking about how digital, and how the technology team, really transform the way we're thinking about our business across the board," King said.

While a stand-alone entity, Store No. 8 is part of Wal-Mart's emphasis on technology as well.

Burke is traveling this week to Store No. 8's Innov8 Gala, a Los Angeles-based showcase for virtual-reality developers, as the company continues to explore ways in which the technology can fit into retail. One potential application Burke outlined Tuesday was creating a virtual-reality experience to help a customer see how a tent would handle a rainstorm.

Store No. 8 will continue to partner with startups, venture capitalists and academics to promote innovation.

Marc Lore, Wal-Mart's U.S. e-commerce chief, said last week that Store No. 8 was not simply a "sandbox."

"It's about incubating businesses that have a clear vision, a mission, a set of values," Lore said. "We're hiring great people to run these businesses, and the idea is to set us up nicely for the future."

Not all of Store No. 8's efforts will produce "home runs" in retail technology, according to Burke. But he added that Wal-Mart is allowing plenty of room for experimentation as the organization continues to integrate its in-store and online businesses in hopes of creating seamless shopping for customers.

"We're getting a bit of a license to step out and say, 'Let's try it,'" Burke said.

Business on 10/18/2017

Print Headline: Store No. 8 aims to see around corner

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