How Pet Food Purchases Make Online Shopping Smarter

Walmart Canada’s executive in charge of online shopping hones in on a new retail concept.

When customers purchase items at Walmart Canada’s website, they leave a trail of clues that provide valuable insights for analysts to piece together. The company uses these resulting findings to improve the online shopping experience. For example, analysis of online pet food buyers finds that young urban dwellers were more likely to purchase cat food online, while older rural residents are the top profile for online dog food sales. This information helps the retailer target dog and cat food promotions to those who are most likely to be interested in them.

Tom Maryniarczyk is the executive in charge of such work, which lies at the intersection of customer service and strategic research. Maryniarczyk—Walmart Canada’s director for strategy, site experience, and analytics—has a dream job that makes the most of his passion for data science and predictive modeling, and provides him with the opportunity to help develop Walmart Canada’s omnichannel strategy. Simply put, he’s at the center of some of the most interesting developments in the industry.

Responsible for customer experience on Walmart Canada’s e-commerce site, Maryniarczyk and his team have to ensure that the site offers the right products to the right people at the right time. In addition, he guides a group of data analysts that sift through voluminous information for insight into customer preferences and spending habits to help decide what products to sell and how to offer and present them to customers. This unit’s work influences strategic decisions for not only e-commerce in Canada, but also, in some cases, for brick-and-mortar stores.

“We are an omnichannel retailer,” Maryniarczyk says. “We’re figuring out the best ways to integrate our experiences.” The omnichannel concept, in which retailers strive to provide seamless shopping between online and physical options, is new to the industry. As this omnichannel approach is developed, retailers need to consider the numerous ways customers may want to conduct their shopping using digital venues and physical space.

Some may conduct purchase decisions by browsing products online, but buy in-store. They may want to come to the store with a detailed purchase list on their phone and pay with an e-wallet. Some might want the retailer to provide the option to place an order from home and pick it up at the store, already bagged and ready to go. Exactly how much of the shopping experience should be digital, and how it should look and feel to customers, is still an open question for the industry, particularly with customers who are unsure about what they want. “No one in the industry has figured out the optimal omnichannel experience yet,” Maryniarczyk says.

It’s his job to help Walmart Canada do this, and he spends countless hours contemplating it. There are thousands of items for sale and essentially limitless ways to categorize and present them on screen. One of the challenges is to tailor the site for each customer according to the individual’s needs and wants. To do this, researchers analyze how customers behave online by poring over a huge cache of data—how long shoppers stay on the site, how they search for items, what devices they use, and more.

For instance, analysts study how many of those who are registered on the site are actually active customers. Loyalty can then be deduced by how often they shop at the Walmart Canada website. They can also study a specific product’s sales information, including pricing, in-stock position, seasonal appeal, and sales.

From a big-picture perspective, predictive sales forecasts extrapolated from digital sales data help C-suite executives with strategic planning. The key is to find reliable correlations between certain data points and the indicator to be forecasted. For example: “We’ve found that trends in the number of customers that shopped with us more than once is most predictive of overall sales performance,” he says. That data then gives business leaders a window into overall sales results for the next quarter and helps to guide their decisions on, say, when to expand into a new territory.

Walmart Canada faces a challenge that is more daunting than that of its counterpart in the United States. Canada is the second largest national land mass, with a population the size of California’s. So, Canada, which has a smaller population spread over a significantly larger area, has higher shipping costs than the United States. In fact, this is the chief reason e-commerce in Canada has lagged in comparison to its neighbor to the south. “There’s a big opportunity for Walmart to figure out cost-effective ways to do shipping,” Maryniarczyk says. This is a critical piece of e-commerce and omnichannel for the company, and there are some innovative possibilities, he explains.

Consumers might be willing to drive a relatively long distance to pick up a delivery to save shipping costs, for instance. A Walmart store or another community pickup point, such as a convenience store or library, could fill the need in rural areas.

Looking ahead, Maryniarczyk is enthusiastic about the possibilities to use data science and analytics to improve the personalization of the shopping experience. Forward-looking retailers, such as Walmart, already use various internal and external data sources to compile detailed profiles of existing and potential new customers. As more customers become comfortable with retailers connecting their on-site browsing history to other digital and offline activity, the opportunity for personalization increases dramatically. “The more information customers allow us to have about them, the better the experience we can offer,” he says.

It’s going to be interesting to watch how e-commerce and omnichannel evolve over the next several years. Issues such as consumer privacy and data security will most certainly come into play, as retailers and society at large work out the specifics of the digital shopping experience. Maryniarczyk, his team, and Walmart Canada will all play an important part.