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Walmart’s Flirtation with Conversational Commerce Is Over—For Now

Text messages have all but replaced phone calls as our standard mode of communication, but shopping has yet to make a wholesale leap to SMS, as Walmart recently learned.

On Feb. 13, the retail chain announced that its Jet black startup would be absorbed into the company’s customer organization, effectively ending the money-losing text message shopping service that attracted just 1,000 members over the 18 months since it launched in June 2018, TechCrunch reported.

Walmart might be synonymous with middle-class Middle America but through Jet black—launched by Rent the Runway co-founder Jenny Fleiss—it aimed to court the affluent urbanites of New York City. For a $50 monthly fee, Jet black’s moneyed members gained access to a concierge-style service that fulfilled their non-grocery shopping requests through the seamless convenience and easy familiarity of text messaging versus the traditional e-commerce checkout process that can involve multiple pages and a whole lot of headache.

Jet black sourced members’ purchases from a network of retailers, not just from Walmart’s inventory. The retailer touted Jet black’s time-saving upside for parents in need of a kid’s birthday gift, for example, or even vacationers who failed to pack beachfront essentials.

Walmart has gleaned valuable takeaways from the short-lived Jet black venture, from how SMS shopping resonates with consumers to what they’re willing to purchase through the streamlined conversational commerce approach, according to a statement by Scott Eckert, senior vice president, next generation retail and principal for Store No8, the innovation arm that incubated the now-defunct startup.

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“We’re eager to apply these learnings from Jet black and leverage its core capabilities within Walmart,” Eckert wrote, adding that conversational commerce technologies “will be an important way Walmart serves customers in the future.”

Amazon may have battled to win its customer-centric laurels, but Walmart isn’t willing to cede that title without a fight. However, e-commerce investments geared at dueling with the online retail leader “haven’t always panned out” as Walmart might have hoped, said Harry Chemko, CEO and co-founder of headless commerce provider Elastic Path.

“Walmart successes will come from experimenting with ways to create more convenient and effective customer experiences,” he said. “This willingness to create new shopping experiences—whether that’s with buy online, pickup in store, or its online grocery business—is what will allow Walmart to rebound” from a rare fourth-quarter earnings miss.

Formation marketing vice president Nicole Amsler sees Jet black as an opportunity for Walmart to peer into the inner workings of a membership program and discover what it takes to build a counteroffer rivaling Amazon’s 100-million-strong Prime subscription base.

“The company will need to figure out how to create the personalized experience of Jet black at scale and will therefore need to be able to identify its customers wherever they shop or engage with the company,” she said. “Membership, whether to a paid offering or free loyalty program, will play a key role in allowing Walmart to understand its customers and scale up this personalization.”