Humans and machines: creating an exceptional customer experience at Walmart
How does Walmart use robotics and artificial intelligence to optimize its customer experience? And how does the company help its staff acquire the skills of tomorrow? We find out with Ethan Garett, head of talent development at the world’s largest mass retailer.
Founded in 1962, Walmart has a long history of continually leveraging new technologies to upgrade the customer experience. It was the first company to introduce electronic price tags to its shelves and to trial automatic checkouts. The world’s leading mass distributor has now set a new priority for 2020: to revamp the management of its stores by automating its manual inventory and using the time saved to enhance the service offered to customers. It is a project that is sure to have an impact on the company’s 2.2 million employees, especially its least skilled workers, who are the easiest to replace with machines.
Creating a “zero-frustration” customer experience
Technology has never been an end in itself at Walmart. “Our objective is to constantly optimize the buying experience of our customers,” explains Garet. “And the main way to do that is via the in-store human interactions between employees and customers. The latest technological advances, such as robotics and artificial intelligence, have two advantages in this respect: 1) They help staff save time on tedious jobs so they can focus on tasks with high added value; 2) They help us understand our customer requirements more effectively.” This is the rationale behind Walmart’s massive investment in new technologies – $ 120 million in 2016 – which aims to merge the physical (instore) and digital experiences. “Our advantage over e-merchants such as Amazon is that we have a network of 11,000 shops. Our goal is to get customers into our stores, even if the process starts with them purchasing something online. Paradoxically, the more newer technologies expand, the more we think we can offer the best customer service in store and differentiate ourselves from other retail traders.”
Better store management to bring down prices
Walmart launched a program in 2017 to test the use of robots in 50 of its US stores for improving shelf management. Autonomous robots – 60-cm tall and equipped with a camera and scanner – control stock, analyze shelves and identify pricing errors. “These inventory tasks, as well as being boring, thankless and time-consuming, are prone to error, so the goal is to give the work to machines so we can free up time for our staff. When a problem is identified (a product that has not been shelved in the right place, for instance), the robot sends a signal for a staff member to intervene. Based on our initial results, the robots are 50% more accurate and three times faster than humans.”
Extract of Business Digest N°282, December-January 2017-2018
Based on an interview of Ethan Garet, HR Manager, Walmart (november 2017).
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Published by Mehdi Ramdani