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High-Tech Stocks … Walmart, Home Depot and McDonald’s?

I love Marcus Wholsen’s lead on a recent Wired article regarding Walmart (NYSE:WMT), so I’m going to steal it:

“Walmart is a technology company. Let’s just put that out there right now. The company has crushed all competitors through its mastery of supply-chain logistics and inventory management, which above all are engineering problems.”

It’s logical, when you think about it — Walmart is a high-tech stock because it depends on technology.

The piece goes on to explain how Walmart has mastered not just the art of pushing suppliers around on low prices but also maximizing cash flow and operational efficiencies across its sprawling retail network.

The company is tracking over $500 billion in revenue this year, and if it can find a way to pinch a few more pennies out of margins by turning over inventory quicker or keeping staffing lean … well, the scale quickly turns those pennies into real money.

This narrative about technology powering otherwise low-tech companies is a favorite of mine. Consider:

Home Depot (NYSE:HD) has a Disaster Response Command Center, with staff meteorologists and high-tech weather planning that rivals the Red Cross and the National Guard. This is a great way to help people in the event of a hurricane or other severe weather … and at the same time tap into sales of plywood, generators and batteries. There are frequent anecdotes about Home Depot being the only store in town to open after a storm, which helps build goodwill and branding in addition to boosting the bottom line. (Walmart has its own hurricane response team, for the record).

McDonald’s (NYSE:MCD) icon Ray Kroc was to restaurants what Henry Ford was to the automobile. In addition to innovating the “fast food” model, other lesser-known technological efforts at McDonald’s included efficient kitchen appliances like fryers, and precise temperature control and timing devices to improve efficiency and maintain uniformity of taste and quality. The innovation continues today, as is evidenced by automated fountain-drink carousels that pour the right sized drink as soon as a cashier keys in the order. It all keeps the product consistent (good or bad, depending on your taste buds), and keeps costs down.

Coca-Cola (NYSE:KO) will do McDonald’s one better on the soft drink front: It has “freestyle” dispensers now in many markets that allow you to choose from over 100 drinks instead of the typical button-and-spout fountains that only offer a half dozen or so varieties. The company also continues to innovate with “green” bottles that use less petroleum,  including a 100% recyclable bottle made partially from plant-based material — saving the environment as well as costs.

There are countless other stories of “high-tech stocks” — businesses using technology to get ahead. Sure, some of this is just money-grubbing corporate tactics to squeeze a bit more out of margins. But a lot of this technology also has benefits to the environment by creating less waste and using less water or energy.

Another bonus is also cheaper goods and better services for consumers … presuming we still have jobs after the robots replace us all.

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Jeff Reeves is the editor of InvestorPlace.com and the author of “The Frugal Investor’s Guide to Finding Great Stocks.” Write him at editor@investorplace.com or follow him on Twitter via @JeffReevesIP. As of this writing, he did not own a position in any of the stocks named here.

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