Wal-Mart plans to be an online juggernaut

July 23, 2013: 1:43 PM ET

The original Big Data champion has its eyes set on growing in e-commerce.

FORTUNE -- The world's largest retailer is working hard to make itself the world's most seamless operator in shopping -- both on- and offline. It would like to attract a lot of new shoppers to Walmart.com in the process.

In a session titled "E-Walmart" at Fortune's Brainstorm Tech conference in Aspen, Colo., on Tuesday morning, Wal-Mart (WMT) chief information officer Karenann Terrell and Neil Ashe, CEO of global e-commerce for Wal-Mart, talked about the company's efforts to marry the scale of Wal-Mart's core business with Internet and mobile technology.

Wal-Mart ranks No. 1 on the Fortune 500 with a mammoth $466 billion in sales last year and more than 10,000 stores world-wide, including over 4,000 in the U.S. It has long been a leader in using technology to manage logistics and today supports 38,000 servers. The company is also building the world's largest private cloud. "We had Big Data before Big Data was cool," said Terrell. Today, it has "double-digit petabytes" of product data, she said, from its 120,000 suppliers.

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However, in a relative sense, its online business, projected to be $10 billion in sales this year, has lagged. Ashe was brought in last year from his previous job as the head of CBS Interactive (CBS) to help change that.

Ashe said that it would be wrong to try to think of the online business as completely separate. "It would be foolish for us to run away from 10,000 stores or 240 million customers," he said. But neither does he want Walmart.com to be merely an add-on. The best strategy, he said, is to create a seamless experience in which a consumer will come to Wal-Mart whenever, wherever makes sense for him or her.

To align the interests of its retail foot soldiers with Ashe and his crew, the company has created a system in which managers at all 4,000 Wal-Mart stores in the U.S. get credit for all sales in their zip codes, whether on- or offline. "That creates 1.4 million advocates for the holistic shopping experience," said Ashe.

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One example of such an experience was a special one-hour guarantee event the company ran for last year's Black Friday mega shopping day. Wal-Mart offered deep-discount prices on three in-demand tech products, including the Apple (AAPL) iPad 2. Any shopper in a Wal-Mart store during the one-hour window was guaranteed to get that item at the discount price. If the store ran out, Wal-Mart collected information from the customer and fulfilled the order through the web.

Pulling that off required coordination all the way from the enterprise level down to the registers at point of sale in all 4,000 stores. Ashe and Terrell said the company was able to pull it off with only 30 days of preparation.

As for how he would define success for Wal-Mart in e-commerce, Ashe said it will come when "we don't care" if a customer does his or her shopping in a store, on a mobile device, or on a laptop sitting on the couch -- or some combination of all of the above. "That's the area we're trying to exploit, is Wal-Mart local as well as Wal-Mart Global," said Terrell.

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