University of Arkansas

Walton College

The Sam M. Walton College of Business

Episode 221: Creating a Seamless Shopping Experience with Tom Ward

April 05, 2023  |  By Matt Waller

Share this via:

This week on the podcast Matt sits down with Tom Ward, EVP and Chief eCommerce Officer of Walmart U.S. They discuss a variety of topics starting with what Tom does in his current role and his past experience in customer product management. They then delve deeper into product management with the idea that product management is really problem solving at the deepest level. Tom touches on how Walmart is solving a variety of problems for customers to create a seamless, personalized shopping experience whether they are shopping in-store or online. They finish the discussion with Tom sharing what he looks for in future associates who would like to join his team.

Episode Transcript

Tom Ward  0:00  
When we say no, the nearest Walmart to our customers is the is the one in their pocket. It's the app. And everyone always says, huh, okay, so when you think about that app as a store is the closest store, it's also the biggest store.

Matt Waller  0:17  
Excellence, professionalism, innovation and collegiality. These are the values the Sam M. Walton College of Business explores in education, business and the lives of people we meet every day. I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Walton College and welcome to the Be Epic Podcast. I have with me today, Tom Ward, who's EVP, and Chief Ecommerce Officer of Walmart US. Thank you so much, Tom, for joining me today. I really appreciate it.

Tom Ward  1:02  
Ya know, you bet. Thanks for having us on.

Matt Waller  1:05  
Tom, you're Chief Ecommerce Officer at Walmart US, that sounds like a really interesting title. What do you do in that role?

Tom Ward  1:16  
Well, it's a great question, Matt, we we have a really simple task, which is how do we bring together physical and digital assets in a way that helps customers save time and money. And ultimately, you know, live better so so my role really is to make sure that all the omnichannel capabilities that we've built over the last few years, connect really well to our digital store, and can be fulfilled through our physical footprint in a way that makes sense for customers.

Matt Waller  1:45  
Tom, you've had an amazing career, you've been SVP of Last Mile, In Home, AV, EV, and Drones. And you've been SVP of Customer Product. And before I go further on your experience, when people hear customer product, many of them think that that's talking about just products like that are on the shelves, what does product mean, at Walmart?

Tom Ward  2:11  
Yeah, no, it's a great question. And I think it's, it's really common. In fact, I remember getting that role, Matt, and it was kind of interesting people like, oh, products, like buying things right to your point and, and selection. But in reality product and product management is is it's kind of a skill and a way of working in business. And it's about solving problems. I think if I boiled it down to its simplest terms, you know, product management is problem solving. And you can't do anything on your own in Walmart. And I think that's probably true of everywhere. And so we use a four in the box framework for product management, that includes a business leader that brings a problem, a product manager that helps the business understand what that problem is and how they might solve it. A technology leader that might build that solution and a designer that helps bring the solution to life in a way that makes sense for the end user. And that might be an internal or an external customer. And so when you use the four in the box and use product management, there's a really cool saying that we like to share at Walmart, which is to fall in love with the problem, and not the solution. And what that does is it opens up the mind to say, if you're trying to solve somebody's problem, everything's on the table. If you went to a solution, you tend to start reinforcing that same solution and you you iterate on the same solution or you defend the same solution. And that might not be right. It might have been right once, but it might not be right, you know, going forward. And so fall in love with problems, not solutions and working with a four in the box are kind of the key tenants to product management.

Matt Waller  3:56  
Very succinct. Thank you. For students listening. We have something called the McMillon Innovation Studio, where companies bring problems to the students and they work in cross functional teams to solve the problems and they focus a lot on problems. They interview lots of customers. They do something called empathy mapping, customer empathy mapping, they learn how to use Agile and other techniques. I, but the students that have come out of there, I know you all have hired a number of students that have come through that that program but we're always trying to improve the degree to which we're incorporating product. I remember Doug McMillon several years ago, before we started the McMillon Innovation Studio, asked us to ramp that capability up and we've been trying to ramp it further and further every year. It is interesting this idea of falling in love with the problem I think about some of the greatest inventors and scientists in history, they clearly had fallen in love with the problem. Because they tried so many empirical methods of and they had lots of failures and trying to find the solution. When you look at that four in the box, I've not heard that before. Maybe our studio has I mean, I don't teach in the studio. But which of those do you feel is the most challenging to incorporate in the in the group in solving the problem?

Tom Ward  5:41  
I mean, I think I think it's a framework for approaching, approaching the product way of working. And the hardest part I often see Matt is is getting a really good problem statement, and tends to be the problem statement is owned by the business. Because they're the ones obviously running the the function or the the area that's, that's under question. And so business leaders tend to say, here's the thing that I need you to go build me. And that's a solution, not a problem. And it sounds really simple to say, well just tell us what you're trying to solve. And folks will say, well, I'm trying to do this one thing, and it's going to connect to this, and I needed to do that. And it's really hard for business leaders to zoom out and stand back to say, what's the actual problem that you're trying to solve the problem statement's, the most important part. And then once you've got that problem statement clarified, let the product team then the technology team and the engineering partners and designers bring the business working alongside the business different solutions that they might not have arrived that had they just gone down a path that was more specific. So it sounds really simple. But the hardest part is defining the problem statement. And once you've defined it, we tend to find that the solutions can come in all different shapes and sizes, and might be much more involved than than was once thought.

Matt Waller  7:11  
Yeah because some solutions may technically be feasible. But when it comes to, for example, getting store associates to roll it out, it might be challenging because of the tenure of store associates or the experience. Do you have to take those kinds of things into account when evaluating solutions?

Tom Ward  7:38  
Yeah, I think I think the way that I would think about it is, you know, the best solutions, you mentioned different innovators and different technologies across the the industry in the landscape. Matt, the best solutions to problems don't need any training. They're intuitive, right? They the heuristics of the solution is so clear, and so obvious that the user can't help but succeed. And so if you remove friction from people's lives, whether they're customers or whether their associates, you're going to make their lives better, you're going to improve the task, you're going to help them solve the problem. That was part of your statement. But doing so means that it should be intuitive, it should make sense. It shouldn't need an instruction manual. And it should flow and it should be easier to get the solution right and wrong. These are the kinds of things that as you're working through a design in a four in a box as a product leader, that you that you think about, because they're what you see in your everyday lives. If you start solutioning, then you tend to start to explain how to use the solution that you propose in and then you run up against this opportunity, which is, how do you do that on a grand scale? How do you do it quickly? And how do you make it sustainable? Whether you're first day in Walmart, or whether you've been here for 20 or 30 years, we want these things to be just as intuitive and just as straightforward for everyone.

Matt Waller  9:03  
When did you first start getting interested in product management product?

Tom Ward  9:09  
I mean, I think we sort of shifted our ways of working. So we might have thought it through a project lens once upon a time. But product management is about customer and associate solutions. And so as we're building an omni channel business, it involves bringing together lots of different things. You know, we have an E-commerce business that ships things to home. We have a store business, obviously in a Neighborhood Markets and our Supercenters, but we have lots of solutions that connect those two things together. And that requires an understanding of the mission of customers on and that leads you to a product mindset in order to meet those challenges.

Matt Waller  9:48  
This reminds me as you've been talking, I'm a bit older than you and I I came out of the Quality Management area a long time ago and And it reminds me, there's a concept called Poka Yoke, that is a Japanese concept. And it means idiot proof. And basically, it's like in manufacturing, you know, a jig, there may be a million ways to put a jig on but if you could make it only one way to go on, then you don't have to worry about it being done improperly. There's the seven why's where you say, the problem is this. Why does this problem why why why? Why? Why? You know, they say if you get down to the seventh why you're starting to understand the problem a little bit better. But it forces you to think through it.

Tom Ward  10:39  
Yeah, and I think that's that's that point. And maybe it's seven why's or other reasons, but that's why the you know, it's definitely the hardest thing in product management is defining a clear problem statement.

Matt Waller  10:50  
So, Tom, you're on the board of Walmex. Which is Walmart, Mexico, is that correct?

Tom Ward  11:00  
Yes, it's publicly traded in Mexico. Yes. So I'm a board member, I get to, you know, take part in those those meetings and help that team think through what will make sense for their business.

Matt Waller  11:16  
I'm on some boards, and many boards don't have people with product experience, like you do, I can just see how having you on a board might be really helpful, in part because of your product expertise. Are you able to use that in the board setting?

Tom Ward  11:36  
Yeah, I mean, I think, you know, product product mindset is probably the best way of thinking about it, Matt. You know, it's helpful to have a product mindset. But really, when you say that what you're talking about is a, you're looking to solve problems. So I like to, I like to simplify it a little bit. And I think if we if we help grow and develop talent, you know, in our teams that are looking at where are the pain points for customers, and where the pain points for associates, and often in retail, those things tend to be very common. There's obviously lots of nuances, but there's generally speaking, folks that are trying to, you know, feed themselves or trying to get access to items that they need, and they want services alongside those items. And, you know, they want to access them seamlessly, depending on what kind of day they're having and where they are, you know, in that lifecycle, those things are pretty common. And so if you focus on problem solving, that tends to lead you to a, you know, a product ways of working, that you can help build really effective solutions.

Matt Waller  12:36  
Tom, I'd like to switch gears just a little bit here. It would be great if you could talk a little bit about the third party marketplace. And you know, if you wouldn't mind explaining it a little bit to to the audience. That'd be great. But also talk about progress you've made term in terms of maybe assortment, onboarding sellers, advertising, order fulfillment, with Walmart Connect, Walmart Fulfillment Services, etc. That'd be great.

Tom Ward  13:08  
Yeah, sure. So so maybe we talk about, you know, our assortment and E-commerce. So we like to have fun with people when we say where's the nearest Walmart? Customers always say, especially around here, you know, my Northwest Arkansas, people will say, oh, I know where it is. It's right down here. It's on the left here. And then you, you know, you turn right, and it's there. And we say no, nearest Walmart to our customers is the is the one in their pocket. It's the app. And everyone always says, huh, okay, so when you think about that app, as a store as the closest store, it's also the biggest store. And I don't have the same physical constraints that I had when I was a store manager, where there's a limit to how many things you can put on the shelves, because you know, the shelves have a have a physical end, whereas online, they don't, you know, you can house all the items that the customer could could want to find in a shelf that that's never ending. And that's really where the distinction between owned inventory owned merchandise that we you know, we buy we have merchant teams buying for our shelves and for our fulfillment centers. And then we have a marketplace, which is an open space that we can bring sellers that want to put their item in front of customers. And they can use the traffic that we have come in through Walmart to help grow that business. And it's great for customers because it means they get access to 10s of millions of items that they need when when they search for them. But it comes with a couple of really important points, which is when you open the search bar in the Walmart Experience, the search bar is working on behalf of the customer. So the search bar wants to do the best job of returning the most relevant item to the customer, depending on what it is they look for, sometimes that's a really generic term. And sometimes it's really specific. So as we grow our marketplace, and we have these millions of items in these endless aisles, the likelihood that we can solve a customer's problem, when they challenge us in that search bar grows and grows, and that builds trust with our customers. And it means that, you know, when they're looking to solve something, whether it's a, you know, perishable grocery order in 60 minutes through express, whether it's, you know, a Christmas item that they need to pick up curbside at a store, or maybe it's a really specific item for a car, or, you know, a crafting request that we carry in our marketplace, and we can deliver that to them. You know, a couple of days later, the Walmart app, the closest store starts to become this, all in one solution for our customers in the marketplace plays a really big role in that.

Matt Waller  15:55  
Tom, this is a relatively I mean, Walmart has been ecommerce for a long time, but still, it's a big philosophical shift, you know, from focusing just on brick and mortar stores. And of course, I know, I know, Walmart's made a huge amount of progress. But I would think that change management is a key part of your job as well, to drive these changes, is that right?

Tom Ward  16:27  
Yeah, I think, look, the yo u know, we've got this incredible legacy, haven't we of the, you know, 60 years plus of being this solution for customers, and I think the, the way our assets come together, is evolving. And, and the expectations that customers have are evolving even faster. There's a great saying Matt, which is loyalty and retail is the absence of something better. And if you think about that, what it means is that the customers last best experience is their new expectation. You know, once people came to stores, then they pick things up, now they want them delivered. The reality is customers want choice. And we want to help activate that choice. And so the way you do that is you bring the footprint together in a way that hides all of the plumbing that hides all of the connection points that live behind the scenes and present in a way that is seamless to the customer. So customers love shopping in our Super Centers, you know, especially at this time of year and seasonal times a year mark, there's no way better to walk in and you know, see everything that we've got going on. They love our neighborhood markets, because they're really convenient. They love our pickup business, because if they don't have time to go inside, they can swing by and pick things up curbside, you know, increasing the especially during the pandemic, delivery played a really important role. People want speed. So we built propositions like express delivery, to help meet those customer needs, you know, especially if you've forgotten something, it's a great solution. And then we have really cutting edge technologies that we're experimenting with to like drone delivery and autonomous vehicle delivery that, you know, really start to bend people's expectations of what they can get, and in what timeframe. But when you add all that, together, you've got this seamless connection between our physical store and our digital store. And so from a change management perspective, you know, the role that our store managers play today is evolved. When I was a store manager, all the customers that that we served came through our front door and they stood right in front, you could see them, you know, the majority of customers obviously come to our stores still, but increasingly, they're also coming to our digital store and the store managers fulfilling that order, you know, online they're dispensing through the curbside through the front door, their loading packages into drones in this local area, for example. And it's really changing the way that people see the role. There's really transforming the way customers experience Walmart.

Matt Waller  19:01  
How is Walmart listening to customers and responding to improve the shopping experience?

Tom Ward  19:08  
Yeah, we spend a lot of time looking at customers feedback. And you know, the great thing about Walmart is we have so many transactions, we see so many customers in so many channels, that we can help present the opportunity for customers to share what's important to them. You know, Matt, maybe I'll point at one example during the pandemic because it's a good one, which was, you know, who'd have thought that the best way to receive a delivery would be contactless, right, leave it on my doorstep. And I'll come and get it when I'm when I'm ready. But almost overnight, that became an expectation from customers. They told us they don't want to interact with people. They didn't want to pull up curbside and sign a, you know, an electronic keypad, they wanted the associate to do it for them because they didn't want to roll the windows down and we wanted to keep our associates safe too. And so when you focus on the problem that needed to be solved, which was how do you receive items that you bought online, whether it's curbside or whether it's on the doorstep, contactless, that's a perfect problem statement for a team to go away and solve. And we did that really fast. And so we'll take cues from customers, we'll understand the way they receive and experience. And if customers tell us they like what they see, then we're probably going to do a lot more of it, then we'll keep iterating on it. And if customers say, hey, this makes things challenging for me, then that becomes the problem statement that we put back into that four in the box and back into that product way of working.

Matt Waller  20:36  
So Tom, one thing that I've been told that you have worked a lot on is simplifying shopping. You know, looking at how Walmart is making the shopping experience fast, seamless, personalized, no matter who the customers or, no matter how the customers or members choose to shop. How have you gone about leading this simplification?

Tom Ward  21:08  
Yeah, but I think for me, simplification involves removing friction. So, you know, I think about our journey, Matt, we once had two apps. We had an orange app, that was what we used to call our online grocery pickup app. And then we had a blue app that was the gateway to Just over a year ago, we said, we should bring these experiences together. Because what we were doing was we were we were kind of showing our organizational structure to our customers, we were saying, hey, if you want to shop with this orange team, then you can buy groceries and consumables, and you can pull up curbside at one of our stores. And we'll bring those out to you. But if you wanted to buy something from our marketplace, and have it delivered to your home, then you had to go through the blue doorway, and you work with this blue app team. And we'd ship that to you in a box and it felt disconnected. It didn't feel simple to the customer. Because the ultimate convenience for Walmart is that you could buy bread, milk, eggs, and a really obscure longtail collectible item from our marketplace. And you could do it all in one transaction. And we should bring it to you either all at once or you know within one series of deliveries. And that wasn't the way we were showing up. And so we decided to bring those two experiences together. And that's a good example of how we're focused on removing friction and simplifying the experience. And that reveals lots of other things that we then need to go and work on that continues to refine that simplification and remove that friction.

Matt Waller  22:47  
Okay, Tom, what are you looking for? In you know, there's, there's probably people out there students and alumni and various people that would like to move in this direction in their career. What do you and your team look for in people?

Tom Ward  23:05  
Yeah, it's a great question, Matt, I think first thing I'm gonna say is that Walmart is a fantastic place to have this kind of career, you know, you listed off a couple of roles I've been fortunate to have here. And I started like running running stores in the UK and then spent time in international and I got to work in different areas there, including strategy. And then I got to work on our training academies and simplification for stores, and then our online pickup business and product organization through to this role in overall e-comm, Matt. So, so I'm always going to be a huge advocate for the kind of breadth of opportunity that Walmart can present to somebody. But I think if you think what's consistent across all those roles, and what makes the difference for folks that we interview, people are gonna have different qualifications and different skills. But the the thing that stands out to me is always the curiosity. Because I think if you're going to solve problems, not just the problems that customers and associates face today, but once they're going to face tomorrow, and if you're going to understand that you've got to see past solutioning, to find that pure problem statement, to remove friction and to, to get on to the next thing. You've got to start from a place of curiosity. So it's really important for us as we meet people to think through the breadth of interest they have the way that they look through, you know, different lenses to view the world because that tends to land you in a place that you might not have expected. And it brings together a really great solution for customers and associates. So that for me is a really important quality.

Matt Waller  24:51  
Well, Tom, congratulations on your amazing career and the tremendous accomplishments and work you're doing at Walmart. It's really impressive and I know you're very busy. So it's very generous of you to take time to visit with us. Thank you.

Tom Ward  25:08  
Thank you. Thanks for kind words, Matt, and really appreciate the opportunity to talk to you.

Matt Waller  25:15  
On behalf of the Sam M. Walton College of Business, I want to thank everyone for spending time with us for another engaging conversation. You can subscribe by going to your favorite podcast service and searching Be Epic B E E P I C. 

Matt WallerMatthew A. Waller is the dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business, Sam M. Walton Leadership Chair and professor of supply chain management. He is also the host for the Be EPIC Podcast for Walton College.


Walton College's EPIC values -- Excellence, Professionalism, Innovation and Collegiality -- are the heart of Dean Waller’s podcast. Since the beginning of the series, Waller has interviewed business professionals, industry experts, CEOs and Walton College students to bring listeners first-hand accounts directly from the entrepreneurial world.


Waller is an SEC Academic Leadership Fellow and coauthor of “The Definitive Guide to Inventory Management: Principles and Strategies for the Efficient Flow of Inventory across the Supply Chain,” published by Pearson Education. He is the former co-editor-in-chief of Journal of Business Logistics. His opinion pieces have appeared in Wall Street Journal Asia and Financial Times.


Waller received an M.S. and Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University and a B.S.B.A., summa cum laude, from the University of Missouri.

Walton College

Walton College of Business

Since its founding at the University of Arkansas in 1926, the Sam M. Walton College of Business has grown to become the state's premier college of business – as well as a nationally competitive business school. Learn more...

Be Epic Podcast

We're sitting down with innovators and business mavericks to discuss strategy, leadership and entrepreneurship. The Be EPIC Podcast is hosted by Matthew Waller, dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. Learn more...

Ways to Listen

Listen on Apple Podcasts
Listen on Spotify
Listen on Google Podcasts
Listen on Amazon Music
Listen on iHeart Radio
Listen on Stitcher