The coronavirus pandemic has revealed new consumer problems that retailers need advanced technologies to solve. At Walmart, that’s meant acceleration of a range of solutions around shopping and fulfillment technologies to enable consumers to get what they need, and for workers to get them those things, in the way they want it, in-stores, at home or in their cars.
Speaking in a virtual interview this week at the Cowen & Co. Broadline & Grocery Executive Summit, Tom Ward, SVP of consumer product for Walmart and a key figure behind its technology boom, told interviewer Oliver Chen that the crisis has provided the retailer “really clear focus” on where it needed to devote its efforts.
“People at the beginning of the pandemic really wanted to get hold of items that they truly needed, whether that was the basics, the food and the consumables and the everyday items that we all need to run our lives, or whether it was more interesting items that help them engage in their work or school behaviors at home. Walmart was there to serve those needs,” Ward said, according to a Sentieo transcript. “And so as we saw those things unfold, solving these problems for the customer became very, very clear. And so that made it actually, really straightforward for us to focus our investment and our intention to solve those problems as they arose.”
What follows are seven areas Ward discussed.
“Who would have guessed previously that if you wanted to receive a delivery, you'd want it to be left on your doorstep without any contact with the delivery driver? That’s not something we'd have ever anticipated.”
Today, Ward said, the “vast majority” of deliveries are entirely unattended with consumers informed via messaging when their order arrives; Walmart’s 3,300 stores offering pickup can conduct the transaction without even opening a car window, through technologies provided. Another innovation—a “digital badge” identifying customers at risk to the virus—helped workers prioritize pickup service for them.
While Walmart is enthusiastically learning about the possibilities of microfulfillment technologies to enable more efficient picking of online orders—notably its deployment of Alert Innovations’ Alphabot system at select stores—it’s still in the testing stage.
“When they solve the right problem, when the math adds up, we can understand how this is going to scale and what it’s going to do for us, then we will lean in hard to those solutions. So I’m excited about what that might look like as it comes together in those tests, and obviously, you'll see more about that as it unfolds.”
Advanced Associate Interface
Ward suggested the solution to the dilemma of the inherently inefficient order picking and fulfillment would likely be a combination of robotics like microfulfillment, ongoing experiments in automated delivery kiosks and technologies enabling store pickers to be more efficient. Personal shoppers on the store floor are typically picking eight orders at a time and are guided along the most efficient route to those items by an associate interface and an algorithmic-influenced substitution capabilities. “We’re as obsessed about the associate technology interface as we are about the customers because that makes them great personal shoppers, which means they can serve the customers really well," he said.
‘Robust Signals’ in Inventory
Walmart has already deployed thousands of Bossa Nova inventory robots in stores and has developed a proprietary FAST unloader technology to prioritize items getting from trucks onto shelves.
“If we're going to pick from these shelves, then we need to be obsessed about the inventory signal that we received from those products,” Ward explained. “And so getting the items from the truck to the shelf is an equally important journey, and it’s critical for both our physical in-store customers and our personal shoppers who are using that same shelf and enjoying those same benefits through the technology.
“Understanding the inventory levels … whether it’s through technologies like Bossa Nova or some of the in-house technology that we build in the handheld, helps to build a robust signal, and that signal is reflected both on the shelf edge for the physical customer and online for the digital customer,” he added
Uniting the Orange and Blue
Though in the works well ahead of the pandemic, the merging of the separate “orange and blue” grocery and general merchandise buying apps—which became one of the most downloaded retail apps in the period—was a key achievement, Ward said.
“It was a great time to bring these two services together under one application to make really a one-stop shop for customers’ needs as it relates to their digital experience. And this is key to our omnichannel journey that we're on,” he said.
Making general merchandise available in a grocery shop helps Walmart’s margin mix and overall profitability, and had special resonance in the pandemic, where shoppers were ordering items like desks to enable work and school at home. “The pandemic pointed people to understand much more about what’s available at Walmart,” he added.
AI for the Shopper Journey
AI-powered basket-building technologies are harnessing massive troves of data to make intelligent selections and reminders for Walmart shoppers, Ward said. “There’s lots of great examples of this, and it’s always the small things people forget, maybe it's the tin foil, maybe it’s the barbecue skewers for grilling out, maybe it's the ink for the printer, whatever it might be. But we’re presenting those items to customers in an intelligent way to help remind them of things that they may have forgotten.”
AI has also enabled the recently launched Express Delivery offering, using inventory of items, drivers and product availability to enable a faster fulfillment option.
Instacart Under Review
The recently announced launch of Walmart on the Instacart Marketplace in select locations “is another example of just another avenue to allow customers access to Walmart products and prices in different ways,” Ward said, though it too is something of an audition. “We’ll learn from it … and we’ll understand what moving forward looks like, whether it’s with our in-house solutions or other technologies that are yet to be discovered. We’re mostly obsessed with, how do you serve customers and get them access to Walmart?”