Walmart has earmarked four stores as “test centers” for piloting new technology and in-store and omnichannel retail concepts and practices.
John Crecelius, senior vice president of associate product and next-generation stores at Walmart U.S., said in a blog post on Thursday that 2020 — marked by vast changes brought by the coronavirus pandemic — has “ushered in a new era of retail,” with customers now “asking for retailers to show up differently.”
To that end, the “test center” stores will be purposed with finding solutions that enable Walmart stores to operate as physical shopping venues and as e-commerce fulfillment centers for online shoppers, Crecelius explained. In a first for Walmart, product and technology staff will be “permanently embedded” in these stores to “prototype” and test solutions in real time, with the goal of better serving customers in today’s omnichannel retail environment.
“We have an amazing set of assets that have us well-prepared for this next era, but we can’t stop there. We’re moving quickly to use our physical retail stores to not only serve in-store shoppers, but to flex to meet the needs of online shoppers, too, in ways that only Walmart can. That’s where our new test stores come in,” Crecelius said in the blog.
“We’ve identified these four stores across the country to serve as test centers where we will continuously rotate new technology, digital tools and physical enhancements in and out of the stores, all with the intention of helping our associates better and more easily serve our customers. We have two up and running with two more to come.”
Crecelius didn’t name the test center stores. A spokeswoman for Walmart, however, said the two locations now serving as test centers are the Walmart Supercenter (store No. 4108) on Elm Springs Road in Springdale, Ark., and the Walmart Neighborhood Market (store No. 2686) on East Central Avenue in Bentonville, Ark. The locations of the other test center stores will be disclosed later on, she said.
On the e-commerce side, Walmart is experimenting with “omni-assortments” in which all eligible in-store items in a product category, such as apparel, are also available online.
“Not everything stocked in stores today can be found online,” Crecelius noted. “In our first test store, we’re moving most of the in-store apparel assortment online, and we will continue to identify other hard-to-manage categories that we can work to make available.”
Walmart, too, aims to improve its first-time pick rate by testing ways to use store signage and handheld devices to help steer associates to the right spots when filling online orders, speeding up the process. “The percentage of times associates find the item on their first attempt has gone up by 20% in some of the categories that tend to be our hardest to pick,” according to Crecelius. “What this means for customers is that their orders get filled faster.”
Similarly, on the in-store operational side, Walmart has developed an app that expedites the moving of items from the backroom to the sales floor. Using that tool, store associates no longer have to scan scan each box. Instead, they hold up a handheld device, and the app employs augmented reality technology to highlight boxes ready to go, explained Crecelius. “Product gets on the shelf faster, something we all know is increasingly important,” he added.
Walmart also plans to build on a “new experimental checkout experience” introduced earlier this year that’s designed to “transform a transactional experience into a relational one,” Crecelius wrote in the blog. “We will continue to test different hardware and software solutions focused on enhancing — and even reimagining — a contact-free checkout experience for customers.”
Test center stores will “increase the speed at which we learn” and create a “true rapid prototype environment,” Crecelius said. Solutions that work will be scaled, with others scrapped, and in the test stores some of what’s being piloted will be seen by customers and some won’t, he added.
“In this new era of retail, assets that used to serve a single purpose will transform into flexible, scalable assets that can be used in multiple ways to serve customers how, when and where they need,” said Crecelius. “Evolving our stores is just the beginning. In the coming weeks and months, we’ll share more about how we’re reimagining our other physical assets to better serve the needs of customers today and into the future.”
Walmart already has begun a range of Supercenter upgrades designed to create a more digitally enabled shopping experience. In late September, the Bentonville-based retail giant unveiled plans to update 200 locations in fiscal 2021 and nearly 1,000 stores by fiscal 2022. Efforts include a new look and feel for the stores, improved interior and exterior signage, and enhanced store directories reflecting the mobile app, as well as optimized store layouts, checkout and payment.