Walmart’s New Test Stores Signal Its Ambition in Omnichannel Retail

Four locations are becoming 'rapid prototype environments' to test new tech

The enhancements include how to help Walmart employees pick online orders faster. Walmart
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Walmart is turning four existing stores into real-life test centers by embedding four members of its product and technology teams in each to try out in-store enhancements in actual retail environments.

The move comes as the retailer seeks to transform is 4,800-store footprint into physical shopping locations that can also serve as fulfillment centers to meet the needs of online shoppers—and to help employees better serve customers’ rapidly changing demands at the same time.

Two of these test stores are up and running near Walmart’s hometown in northwest Arkansas. A spokesperson said the other two locations will be revealed later.

According to the spokesperson, these associates will rotate new technology, digital tools and physical enhancements at the test stores, scaling what works and scrapping what doesn’t in a “true rapid prototype environment.”

A blog post noted some of what Walmart tests at these locations will be visible to shoppers, and some won’t.

In its first test store, for example, Walmart is moving most of the apparel available in-store to the ecommerce platform as well and said it will continue to identify other “hard-to-manage categories” and work to make them available online, too—because not everything stocked in its stores is available on its website.

“By doing so, we’ll learn what it takes to make all eligible items in the store truly [omnichannel],” John Crecelius, svp of associate product and next generation stores at Walmart U.S., wrote in the blog post.

Walmart is also testing how to use in-store signage and handheld devices to help employees picking online orders navigate stores better.

“In complex merchandising areas like apparel, an associate is taken to a general area to find an item on their own,” Crecelius said in an explainer video. “But with more accurate navigation within our associate tools and more visible store signage, we can now take the associate directly to the rack or peg where the product is located.”

As a result, Crecelius said the number of times employees find a given item on their first attempt has increased by 20% in some hard-to-pick categories—which means customer orders are filled faster. The retailer has also developed an app to reduce the time it takes to restock items on the sales floor.

In the backroom, employees now manually scan barcodes on boxes to determine which cases include the products they’re looking for, which Crecelius noted is time-consuming. As an alternative, Walmart is testing an app that uses augmented reality to highlight which boxes are ready to go when the employee holds up their device and scans the shelves.

“This tool will be scaled to stores early next year,” Crecelius added.

After introducing a new checkout experience earlier this year, Walmart said its test stores will continue to build on the concept with “hardware and software solutions focused on enhancing, and even re-imagining, a contact-free checkout experience for customers.”

In a year that has ushered in a new era of retail, Walmart said, “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.”

The retailer said it will share more about how it is reimagining its other physical assets in the coming months.

@lisalacy Lisa Lacy is a senior writer at Adweek, where she focuses on retail and the growing reach of Amazon.