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How Walmart’s JetBlack Personal Shopping Startup Makes “Magic” for Members

Much has been said about the “art and science” of retail but Jetblack, the first company launched from Walmart’s Store No 8 incubation arm, is really striving to bring the two together—with a dose of “magic” and a dash of “word of mom.”

The conversational commerce startup has grown rapidly over the past eight months, from about 20 employees to more than 120, head of marketing Kathryn Winokur told attendees at the CommerceNext conference in New York City last week. An invite-only service currently only available in New York City and targeting young, affluent urban parents, Jetblack charges members a $50 monthly fee for access to a text-messaging platform that handles all of their commerce requests, from mundane household replenishment items to specialized gift-giving needs—typically settling on the right product in less than one hour.

And this is where the art and the science comes in, Winokur explained. While two-month-old Jetblack may default to its artificial intelligence-powered chatbot to manage a more run-of-the-mill restocking (maybe the customer is nearly out of Tide pods), a “trained gifting expert” or a professional “stylist” will step in when the personalized hands-on touch will make the difference, such as sourcing a “beautiful monogrammed jewelry box” for a mother’s 70th birthday, Winokur said. Or when a new mother is looking for polished workwear to ease her return back into the workforce post maternity leave. In those “incredibly important” moments, Winokur said, connecting members with reliable, trained staff reinforces the “power of the human edge.”

“The best merchandise experience is really a combination of art and science,” Winokur said. Here, the science is the AI, but the art is going the distance to find members the best possible product. But there’s also the concept of “word of mom,” or what moms just like her also prefer or tend to buy. It’s “keeping up with the Joneses” for the 21st century digital age, according to Winokur.

With a waitlist Winokur described as into the “thousands,” Jetblack is already mulling expansion into other cities and even suburban areas, which the marketing chief said could make even more sense as non-urban centers don’t have the kinds of delivery options common to metropoles—such as the startup’s same- or next-day order delivery.

Breaking from the traditional e-commerce mold, Jetblack delivers goods in recyclable bags—“a huge perk of the service.”

“It’s a pain point that we hear a lot from folks that order online all the time,” Winokur said, “and they have tons and tons of boxes.”

Though it’s come a long way, “there’s a lot still to unlock with natural language processing” and the ease of chatting casually with a bot, Winokur said. Consumers have been so programmed to conduct their searches a particular, typing-based way on search engine platforms like Google,” she said, adding that now they’re being rewired to learn that it’s possible to “interact virtually the same way they would with a friend, and the bot on the other end will understand.”

The experience of conversational commerce has been around as long as there have been stores and associates and shoppers; it’s just the format and delivery mechanism that have evolved, according to Winokur.

“All we’re really doing now is taking that one-to-one interaction that used to happen in the stores and prototyping it with voice and messaging assistance,” she added.

For now, the startup remains “source agnostic” in terms of where and how it fulfills requests, naturally looking to the brands carried by Walmart and Jet.com but also scouring the likes of Zara, Saks or Pottery Barn when it makes sense. Though the firm has received a number of “inbound requests” from brands seeking to partner, Winokur said the litmus test will always be whatever the best product is for the customer, as Jetblack doesn’t want to sacrifice its recommendations. Down the line, she added, it’s possible the startup could explore something along the lines of incorporating live feeds from a brand or retailer “to help make the order process more efficient and get those products that we recommend anyway to our members.”

Because Jetblack carries no inventory, it presents an unusual environment for professionals accustomed to a certain way of working. “It’s a really interesting job for [merchandisers] because it’s very different from managing inventory and the margins and all of that,” Winokur explained.

New members who make it off the waitlist are welcomed to Jetblack with a text-message invite and a 15-minute getting-to-know-you phone call with a concierge agent designed to determine who the consumer is and how she runs her household, Winokur noted. While that initial meet-and-greet will uncover the basics about her kids and husband, their birthdays and any allergies or brand preference, Jetblack really gets to know the consumer once she starts ordering.

As it gets off the ground, Jetblack wants to continue making memorable moments for its members.

“We use the word ‘magic’ a lot in our [team] culture because the service really is wow-worthy,” Winokur said. “Members say, ‘oh my gosh. I haven’t had a delightful shopping experience in so long, it’s always such a chore.’”

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