Wal-Mart's Shopycat Facebook Sends Customers To Other Sites—Really Rarely, Though

Wal-Mart on Thursday (Dec. 1) officially rolled out its Shopycat Facebook app, which lets consumers see WalmartLabs-fueled gift suggestions for all of your Facebook friends, based on their posts and stated likes/dislikes. Wal-Mart said that "Shopycat is designed to trigger gift ideas for friends ranging from music, books and movies to games and electronics, making gifting more fun and saving on time and the pressures of discovering the perfect gift." About time that someone put an end to this pressure to find the perfect gift. Effort, thought and attention are simply making America weak. When I think gifts for loved ones, I think compromise and just get it over with. (And yes, that fits in so well with the image that Wal-Mart is trying to shake.)

The idea is indeed interesting, as the Wal-Mart algorithms have already done the work of predicting what would be desirable. Then again, does it factor in that something of strong interest to someone has likely already been purchased by—or for—them?

One nice touch about Shopycat is that it doesn't technically limit its suggestions to walmart.com and Wal-Mart stores. But testing on the app certainly shows that the overwhelming majority of choices are only on walmart.com. That's even less surprising when you factor in that it's Wal-Mart that is choosing the gift suggestions. When it does suggest something it doesn't have, it will send customers to someone else, including Bed, Beth & Beyond and Barnes & Noble. It does not seem to be sending to true Wal-Mart rivals, such as Target.com and Amazon.com, but even offering a token number of items to other sites is a nice gesture.

The app still has a few bugs to work out. When we deliberately chose a relatively inactive Facebook friend, the non-copyedited message read: "you has not shared enough information for Shopycat to determine an awesome-enough gift, so we are showing our top-rated gifts instead." (And, yes, the site really does say "you has not.") One media report said the site would offer giftcards for anyone with insufficient data, but it seems they went with their "top-rated" gifts instead.

Given that Wal-Mart is the world's largest retailer, we can imagine what the top-rated gifts for such a chain might be. To be honest, we would have been quite wrong. We would have, for example, never guessed that Wal-Mart's top-rated gifts would include the George Foreman Quesadilla Maker. We would have also never guessed that, at zero stars, the $25 Personalized Keepsake Box would have made the list.

A colleague pointed out that the old-fashioned approach of calling people and asking them what they'd like—which automatically eliminates already-owned items—is a good way of connecting and that the antiseptic "let software analyze their postings and make suggestions" steps away from that.

In Wal-Mart's own announcement of Shopycat, the chain makes a similar point, but with a very different suggested course of action. "As human beings, we are inherently social and shopping is one of the most social activities we engage in," said Venky Harinarayan, senior vice president of Walmart Global eCommerce and co-founder of @WalmartLabs. Let's take this holiday season and make it merry by using your mobile device—to call friends and families and really talk. (Surprised at that ending? Hey, it's December. I'm allowed to get a little maudlin.)