When Man and Machine Meet in Retail, Customers Win

Oct. 30, 2018

An associate helps a customer sign for a grocery pickup order

The Rogers, Ark., resident uses the free Grocery app to fill a digital shopping cart throughout the week and submits an order when she’s ready. While King watches her children play in the park, a trained personal shopper at her local Walmart assembles her order using A.I.-infused technology to ensure accuracy, efficiency and quality. King swings by Walmart on her way home, and a personal shopper loads her household essentials into her trunk.

Walmart’s mobile apps are just one example of how the company is pioneering technologies that streamline the shopping experience and help associates build meaningful relationships with customers and develop new skills. This high-tech, high-touch approach in which people and technology work together is the future of retail.

A recent study by the National Retail Federation found that six in 10 consumers said technology-enabled conveniences, such as self-checkout, mobile payments, in-store pickup and in-store navigation, improved their shopping experiences.

“Our customers have gone online,” said John Crecelius, vice president of central operations for Walmart U.S. “They’re using their phones and buying in very different ways than they did even five years ago. As we offer customers better service and new ways of shopping, it changes the way we work inside our stores and how we prepare our associates.”

Rather than eliminate jobs, automation has helped retailers like Walmart add new positions and refine existing roles to make them more rewarding. The U.S. retail industry has created 1.5 million new jobs since the end of the Great Recession in 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In Walmart’s 2018 fiscal year, the company promoted more than 230,000 people to jobs with greater responsibility and higher pay.

“It’s not enough for today’s employees to be technologically experienced,” said Ellen Davis, president of the NRF Foundation and senior vice president of research and strategic initiatives at the National Retail Federation. “New technologies make face to face interaction and interpersonal skills more important than ever.”

An associate assists a customer at a pickup kiosk

People and Technology, Working Together

While there’s a misconception that humans and automation should be at odds, successful companies like Walmart are using technology to make employees’ jobs simpler. By robotizing mundane tasks like scanning and stocking, workers can engage in more stimulating and edifying work, such as interacting with customers and analytical decision-making.

At Walmart Academies, an immersive training program launched in 2016, associates can learn new technologies and acquire advanced retail skills to propel their careers and help them feel more confident in their jobs. So far, the company has opened nearly 200 Walmart Academies and trained more than 500,000 associates.

These new technologies include the Auto-S shelf-scanning robot, a machine the company introduced in 2016 to scan shelves and identify low-stock areas and mispriced or mislabeled items. Using machine learning, Auto-S scours dozens of aisles in less than an hour multiple times per day, a process that used to take throngs of associates days to complete, Crecelius said.

“The time saved by Auto-S gives store associates more time to get excited about items and spend time with customers learning what their needs are,” he said.

An Autonomous Shelf Scanner scans products in a Walmart pharmacy

Walmart’s claims process was another area where the company leveraged new technologies to improve inelegant systems. In the past, associates and managers used email, paper and different applications to determine what to do with returned and damaged items — a time-consuming and sometimes wasteful process.

An associate unloads boxes using the new FAST Unloader

In its place, Walmart has introduced a Claims app that associates use to scan items and instantly receive instructions on whether to mark them down, donate them or dispose of them. The Claims app helps Walmart not only comply with health and safety standards, but also promote corporate and civic responsibility by reducing waste and carbon emissions.

“We always try to resell an item,” Crecelius said. “We don’t want items to end up in landfills, and donating or shipping to a return center involves transportation and burning fossil fuels.”

Walmart associates on loading docks and in stockrooms have begun to use a new A.I.-powered machine called the FAST Unloader that unloads and scans items from trucks. Paired with the Auto-S scanner, the FAST Unloader can tell employees where newly unloaded products are most needed. This complex process previously required eight associates. With the FAST Unloader, however, it takes four employees two hours or less to unload a truck.

Rissa Pittman, store manager of a Walmart Supercenter in Rogers, Ark., said associates who previously spent a large portion of their shifts unloading trucks are now learning new skills like customer service and merchandising.

“Technology has allowed us to offer more opportunities within stores that don’t involve just unloading trucks,” Crecelius said.

Walmart associate Tanaka uses the new FAST Unloader to unload boxes

New Technologies Bring New Jobs and Opportunities

With more associates released from laborious tasks, Walmart has trained many of them to operate new e-commerce technologies that streamline the ordering and pickup experience for customers. Associates using the FAST Unloader can move items from trucks to Walmart Pickup Towers inside and outside of Walmart stores. There, customers need only scan a code from their smartphones to receive online purchases from a tower. No searching required.

“The Pickup Towers are like ATMs for parcels,” said Tom Ward, vice president of digital operations at Walmart. “The entire pickup experience typically takes about eight to 12 seconds.”

A customer approaches a Walmart Pickup Tower

Walmart has also retrained associates as personal shoppers for its Grocery Pickup and Grocery Delivery services, which allow busy customers like King to place an order online and have it filled to be picked up or delivered within a one-hour window. With Grocery Delivery, Walmart plans to use 25,000 personal shoppers to reach more than 40 percent of American households by the end of 2018.

“Our business is changing and new services are coming online,” Crecelius said. “Technologies like Pickup Towers and Grocery Delivery and Pickup are improving our ability to use associates to better serve our customers.”

Associate loads a customer's car with an online grocery pickup order

Making Tough Work and Shopping More Enjoyable

As Walmart demonstrates, new technologies allow businesses to not only succeed but also redefine the retail experience by engaging customers and helping employees flourish.

Innovations that optimize convenience can also improve the bottom line, ultimately helping to keep prices low, said Davis from the National Retail Federation. This saves customers time and money. And improving their shopping experiences can build goodwill for decades, she added.

For Pittman’s associates in her Arkansas supercenter, a simple yet clever feature on the FAST Unloader lets employees play music while they work, helping them “get pumped for the day,” she said. For customers like King, the Walmart Grocery app helps budget time and money, creating more family time. Walmart has made shopping, once a dreaded chore for King, easy and fun. For a busy parent juggling a million things, “it’s almost like having one more hand,” she said.

Editor’s Note: This story was produced in partnership with T Brand Studio and was originally published here.