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Kosmix deal raises question, now what?

BY CSA STAFF

Walmart’s acquisition of Kosmix will shorten the company’s social media learning curve and open the door for some intriguing new possibilities, even if those possibilities aren’t quite clear just yet.

What is clear is Walmart is intent on being a multichannel operator, and social media is viewed as the new Holy Grail when it comes to engaging with customers. It is an opportunity that Walmart can’t afford to miss, so it did what big companies tend to do when they discover a deficiency in their operations. It went looking for an acquisition to shore up its capabilities and found Kosmix.

So what does Kosmix do?

According to founders Venky Harinarayan and Anand Rajaraman, Kosmix employs an innovative technology platform that searches and analyzes connections in real-time data streams to deliver highly personalized insights to users. The platform powers TweetBeat, a real-time social media filter for live events that recorded five million visits last month; Kosmix.com, a site to discover social content by topic; and RightHealth, one of the top three health and medical information sites by global reach.

Harinarayan and Rajaraman are regarded as pioneers of online shopping who founded a company called Junglee that was acquired by Amazon.com in 1998, back when dotcom startups were fetching lofty valuations. Walmart didn’t disclose what it paid for Kosmix, but there is a lot of chatter in the marketplace around a second dotcom bubble except this time mobile is the source of exuberance.

“We are expanding our capabilities in today’s rapidly growing social commerce environment,” said Eduardo Castro-Wright, Walmart’s vice chairman. “Social networking and mobile applications are increasingly becoming a part of our customers’ day-to-day lives globally, influencing how they think about shopping, both online and in retail stores. We are excited to have the Kosmix team join us to accelerate the development of our social and mobile commerce offerings.”

Accelerate is the operative word there. As Walmart chairman Rob Walton noted in the company’s annual report, one of his father’s favorite quotes was, “To succeed, stay out in front of change.” Walmart hasn’t exactly been the tip of the spear when it comes to all things digital, but the company has made some significant strides the past few years, including the restructuring that took place last year and put former Walmart U.S. president and CEO Eduardo Castro-Wright in charge of the new Global eCommerce organization.

Say what you will about Castro-Wright, and plenty have, the guy gets things done and could be exactly what Walmart needs to bring a sense of urgency to the development of Walmart’s multichannel capabilities. It will also require him to be a good listener as the Kosmix founders and their team will be joining Walmart as part of a newly formed group called @WalmartLabs. The group will be expanded and based in Silicon Valley where it will create technologies and businesses around social and mobile commerce that will support Walmart’s global multichannel strategy.

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Walton family ownership reaches 48.2% level

BY CSA STAFF

The stock buyback binge Walmart has been on for the past few years is positioned as a way for the company to return cash to shareholders, and it is. However, the $25.6 billion (that’s not a typo) spent by Walmart on share repurchases during the past three years has had another effect. It has driven the Walton family’s ownership stake in the company to a record level of 48.18%.

As of March 31, Walton Enterprises LLC, which includes as managing members Alice, Jim and Rob Walton, owned 1,680,506,739 of the company’s 3,487,721,113 outstanding shares, as disclosed in the company’s proxy statement. Just five years ago, Walton Enterprises LLC’s, ownership stake was 40.32% because it held the same number of shares but the number of outstanding shares was much higher at 4,167,369,745 as of March 31, 2006.

It is conceivable the Walton family’s ownership stake will hit the 50% mark at some point in the coming years assuming Walmart remains an active purchaser of its own shares. The company ended its fiscal year on Jan. 31 with $4.8 billion remaining from a $15 billion authorization approved last year. However, a large percentage of that remaining authorization was likely consumed during the first quarter and financial analysts anticipate the company will reauthorize the share repurchase program at a level comparable to or higher than last year. And with no immediate catalyst on the horizon to send Walmart sharply higher this year the company can continue gobbling up its own shares at levels it deems attractive.

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Walmart says, “thanks, but no thanks,” to shareholder proposals

BY CSA STAFF

It has become something of a tradition at Walmart’s annual meeting that shareholders are asked to consider a number of proposals, which the board of directors typically recommends shareholders reject. It appears likely that will be the case again this year when the shareholders’ meeting is held on June 3 and five proposals are on the ballot.

One proposal deals with the thorny issue of gender identity and recommends Walmart adopt a policy explicitly prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity. Others ask the company to prepare reports related to climate change risk and political contributions. Another would give shareholders the ability to call special meetings.

Another proposal of particular of interest to Walmart suppliers involves a requirement that they publish an annual sustainability report. Even though many already do, the proposal suggests, “such report should include the supplier’s objective assessments and measurements of performance on work place safety, and human and worker rights, using internationally recognized standards, indicators and measurement protocols. In addition, a report should include incidents of non-compliance, actions taken to remedy those incidents, and measures taken to contribute to long-term prevention and mitigation.”

The Walmart board recommends shareholder vote “no” on the proposal and offered the following explanation.

“For years, Walmart has had in place supplier standards that address the treatment of workers by suppliers and supplier workplace safety. We expect our suppliers to meet or exceed these standards. Our supplier standards are not merely goals that we encourage our suppliers to meet; rather, a supplier’s failure to adhere to these standards may jeopardize that supplier’s continued business relationship with Walmart,” according to the company.

“In furtherance of our standards for suppliers, each year Walmart conducts, through Walmart’s internal auditors or through qualified third-party auditors, thousands of audits of the factories of suppliers of products for which Walmart is the importer of record and of suppliers of private-branded products. If an audit reveals that a supplier is not complying with our standards, we take appropriate action to address the problem, up to and including termination of our relationship with the supplier or its non-complying factory. Walmart maintains, and continues to work daily to implement, principles that serve what appears to be the ultimate purpose of the proposal, that is, to purchase products from suppliers that comply with high standards of legal and ethical treatment of workers and work place safety. We believe that requiring our suppliers to produce annual sustainability reports would force our suppliers to incur a significant expense in connection with the commitment of resources necessary to prepare and publish such reports. This requirement and the increased expenses incurred by our suppliers in preparing these reports could ultimately lead to higher costs for Walmart and higher prices for our customers. This would not be in the best interests of Walmart’s shareholders and customers and would place Walmart at a competitive disadvantage against those competitors whose supplier bases are not required to incur the expenses associated with mandated, annual sustainability reports.”

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