Shopping by text message: Walmart rolls out Jetblack, a members-only service

  • Walmart has launched Jetblack, initially in New York.
  • The personal shopping service will cost $50 per month and include perks such as gift recommendations, free wrapping, speedy delivery and easy returns.
  • The service isn't exclusive to products on Walmart.com and Jet.com. Other retailers, including Saks and Pottery Barn, are included in the service.
Paul Morigi | CNBC

Walmart is rolling out a new service, through its Store No. 8 incubator, where shoppers can order items over the phone via text message.

Known as Jetblack, the platform has quietly been in beta mode in the New York area. It will now be opened up to more applicants in New York who wish to become members, before expanding to other U.S. markets. The retailer made the announcement Thursday at its annual shareholder meeting in Bentonville, Arkansas.

The start-up is being led by Rent the Runway co-founder Jenny Fleiss, who joined Walmart last year.

"The goal is to think about game-changing technology, to think about the future of retail five years down the road," Fleiss told members of the media Thursday.

At $50 per month, Jetblack is not an exact counter to Amazon Prime, which costs $12.99 per month. Rather, it is intended for more affluent shoppers, particularly moms. It also isn't exclusive to products on Walmart.com and Jet.com. It will send shoppers items from other retailers, such as Saks, Bluemercury and Pottery Barn.

Jetblack will give members access to personal shoppers who will offer recommendations when a person texts, for example, "I need a gift for my 10-year-old daughter's birthday party." The shopper can then choose from the photos of items sent to them via text. From there, an order can be placed — again, over text message.

A membership includes white-glove delivery as soon as the same day or next day, complimentary gift wrapping and easy returns. To start, it won't be able to handle fresh groceries, Fleiss said. Jetblack is also working with third-party delivery services such as Deliv and Uber to bulk up its supply chain.

"Our eCommerce strategy has been focused on three elements: nailing the fundamentals, leveraging our unique strengths to play offense and innovating for the future," Marc Lore, Walmart's head of e-commerce, said in a statement about Jetblack. "Powered by conversational commerce, the future of retail will bring convenience and high-touch personalization to the forefront for consumers everywhere."

The rollout of Jetblack marks another move by Walmart to reach younger and more urban customers. It acquired Jet.com in 2016 and has since added other brands, such as Bonobos and ModCloth, to its portfolio. One of the retailer's top goals today is to grow its online business to compete with that of Amazon.

In the most recent quarter, Walmart's online sales soared more than 30 percent following a somewhat disappointing holiday season, where e-commerce growth waned more than a year after its acquisition of Jet.com. Walmart has said it anticipates meeting or exceeding sales growth of 40 percent in fiscal 2019.

The company recently rolled out a redesigned website, which has more local touches and more subtle Walmart branding. It has new landing pages for home and fashion. Hudson's Bay-owned Lord & Taylor is also being integrated into the new site.

Other projects being run under Walmart's Store No. 8 incubator include Project Kepler, a start-up working to build cashier-less stores similar to Amazon Go, and a virtual reality initiative.

"Thousands of people are on our waitlist [for Jetblack]," Fleiss said. "We want to save people time."