Walmart Inc. is turning four of its stores, including two in Northwest Arkansas, into prototypes for serving both in-store and online shoppers, the company said Thursday.
A Walmart spokeswoman said the Northwest Arkansas stores are the Neighborhood Market at 1703 E. Central Ave. in Bentonville and the Supercenter at 4870 Elm Springs Road in Springdale. Both are already operating as test centers.
Two more test sites have been selected, but the Bentonville-based retailer did not say where those are located.
Product and technology teams will work in the stores to continuously try out new digital tools and physical enhancements in real time, "scaling what works and scrapping what doesn't, said John Crecelius, senior vice president of associate product and next-generation stores for Walmart U.S.
Given the exponential growth of e-commerce during the covid-19 pandemic, the purpose of the testing "is to find solutions that help our stores operate as both physical shopping destinations and online fulfillment centers in a way that has yet to be seen across the retail industry," Crecelius said in a news release.
Sucharita Kodali, vice president and principal analyst with Forrester Research, said of the initiative that "there's a reason it's a test, because there are lot of reasons it would fail."
"Inventory accuracy for stores used as warehouses is notoriously a disaster," Kodali said. However, the use of robots or other automated camera systems may help improve that, she said.
"If a retailer can figure out how to have accurate inventory levels in a store, and if that merchandise can serve the dual purpose of both warehouses and consumer-facing stores with 100% accuracy in a manner that is no higher than their current labor cost (if it's lower, even better), they will strike gold," Kodali said.
Crecelius described a few of the innovations Walmart is testing. One of these he calls "omni-assortment."
Not every item in stores can be found online, Crecelius said. So in the first test store, he said, most of the in-store apparel assortment will be made available online. But the effort won't stop there.
"We will continue to identify other hard-to-manage categories that we can work to make available," Crecelius said. "By doing so, we'll learn what it takes to make all eligible items in the store truly omni-available for customers online and in the store."
Walmart also has developed an app that will speed up the time it takes to get items from the back room to the shelves, Crecelius said. Instead of having to scan each box individually, workers will simply use a hand-held device equipped with the app. Using augmented reality, the app will highlight all the boxes that are ready to go.
In addition, the stores will use the experimental contact-free checkout technology that Walmart began testing earlier this year in a Fayetteville Supercenter.
Instead of the traditional checkout lanes with conveyor belts, the Fayetteville store has a large area lined with self-checkout bays.
That doesn't mean, though, that customers are left to fend for themselves with the new layout and technology. Store cashiers transitioned into new positions called hosts. They greet each shopper who enters the area and guide them to an open register, offering whatever level of help the shopper needs.
And for customers who prefer to have their items checked out by an employee, the host will ring up and bag the merchandise for them.
In addition to these prototype stores, Walmart said in 2018 it was building an artificial intelligence lab in a store in Levittown, N.Y. The Intelligence Retail Lab lets the company test technology that could be helpful for both employees and customers.
Sam's Club, Walmart's members-only warehouse division, also tests new technology that may later be introduced into stores and clubs companywide. A Dallas-area store called Sam's Club Now, which opened in 2018, is smaller than most clubs but lets the company try out new retail concepts.
These include such innovations as a camera system for inventory management and an app that uses beacon technology to guide customers through the store to the items on their linked shopping list.