Walmart investing $71.8 million remodeling and upgrading Arizona stores

Walmart is investing approximately $71.8 million remodeling 14 Arizona stores and adding a number of customer- and employee-focused technological innovations to stores across the state.

“I think the future is creating a shopping experience, whether you’re shopping online or in-store… that’s frictionless,” said Tiffany Wilson, director of communications for Walmart. “What we’re trying to do is leverage our physical stores and our digital assets… to really create a shopping experience that allows customers to have options. If you want to shop online, shop in-store, or a combination of the two — like grocery pickup, where you shop online and then pick it up at the store — no matter how you choose to do that, you can shop when, how and where you want.”

Online grocery pickup, grocery delivery and in-store pickup towers are among the customer-focused innovations being added.

“We want to provide a great shopping experience by investing in our stores and introducing new services that save time and money,” said Todd Peterson, Walmart regional general manager for Arizona, in a press release. “This investment demonstrates our commitment to our customers, our confidence in our associates and the importance of the state of Arizona to our business.”

Grocery pickup is helpful for parents with children or people with mobility issues, because it does not require customers to enter the store, Wilson said.

“It’s a great service where you order your groceries online, a personal shopper goes through the store and picks up all your fruits and vegetables, meats, etc.,” she said. “When you are ready to pick up your items, you simply pull up to a designated parking spot and an associate will bring your items out to your car and load them into the car for you. You don’t have to get out of the car; you don’t even have to unbuckle your seatbelt.”

Arizona was one of the first states where Walmart tested its pickup service to assess customer satisfaction and note employee feedback, Wilson said. The program has been popular and will expand to 34 additional stores in the state by the end of 2019, she said.

“Grocery delivery is another service that’s similar,” Wilson said. “You order online, and then your groceries are delivered to you. That’s being expanded to an additional 20 stores.”

Grocery delivery costs $9.99 while the grocery pickup service is free with an order of $35 or more.

Another innovation for customers is the installation of item pickup towers.

“These are 16-foot-tall essentially high-tech vending machines, and we’re adding those to about 15 stores,” Wilson said. “You order online, then you come to the store, and you use your code that’s sent to you on your cell phone. You get that read by the machine, and it will vend your items to you in about six seconds.”

Walmart is also making improvements to help its associates by automating some of the more menial physical tasks that most people do not want to do. One is the new FAST unloader system, which will be added to 41 more stores in Arizona this year.

“That is a system that we have in our back rooms that scans items that are coming off of our trucks, and it sorts them based on priority and the department that they need to go to so our associates can grab those items and put them into the right areas of the store,” Wilson said.

Unloading trucks is a job Walmart has trouble finding people to do, and the employees that take the job often do not stay long, she said.

“What this does is it allows us to fill out those positions that we have trouble finding people to do and then allow the associates who have those jobs to spend either more time on the floor working with customers or up-leveling their skills, like working on the machines and using them as a tool so that they can do more high-level positions,” Wilson said.

The final employee-focused addition is the autonomous floor-scrubber, which will make its debut in 48 stores across Arizona.

“It has the same technology as an autonomous car and basically has a built-in map of each of the stores, and it will go from aisle to aisle scrubbing the floors… until the job is complete,” Wilson said. “That’s also another job we have trouble finding and retaining people for.”

These changes represent the future of retail, giving customers as many shopping options as possible, according to Walmart.

“Some people may want to shop one way one day and another way another day, and giving them those options is really going to be key to making sure you stay relevant in the retail industry,” Wilson said.

Arizona is a “really important state for us,” she said. Walmart has 127 stores in the state including Neighborhood Markets, Discount Stores, Sam’s Clubs and traditional Supercenters, making Arizona one of Walmart’s biggest retail locations.

Walmart employs more than 33,000 associates in Arizona and spent $1.6 billion with 728 Arizona suppliers last year, supporting more than 32,000 local supplier jobs in the state.

“We want to continue to be an employer of choice in Arizona, and we also want to make investments in our stores so that our customers have the best shopping experience possible,” Wilson said.

The varied origins of Arizona residents and a constant stream of visitors make Arizona a “key state” for Walmart and a proving ground for national store innovations, she said.

“It’s a great place because people in Arizona shop in many different ways, and it’s a state where you get a lot of tourists as well, so being able to provide our customers with shopping options that make sense for their shopping habits is really important for us in Arizona,” she said.

Wilson said she gets worried when she hears fears that automation and technological innovations in stores will hurt jobs, replacing employees with “robot janitors” or “robot workers.” But these changes are not meant to replace employees; instead, they are meant to supplement the workforce and give employees more options, she said.

“These are technologies that are helping empower our associates and free them up so that they can do higher-level jobs,” Wilson said. “These jobs are sometimes repeatable, they’re manual, they’re labor intensive, and they’re generally things that we struggle to find, hire and retain associates to do.”

The new technology makes it easier for Walmart to hire people, and as a result the company can invest more in training and benefits, provide more rewarding work and lower employee turnover, Wilson said. So far, customers and associates are saying “it’s working,” she said.

“We’re — and Sam Walton has always had this philosophy, too — we are a store that’s tech-enabled but people-led,” Wilson said. “We want to give people the tools to do their jobs better and serve customers better, but we always need to have that human touch to make sure we’re connecting with our customers and that they continue to shop with us.”

Graham Bosch

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