The name Walmart is more likely to conjure up flashbacks of low price tags than a futuristic vision of technology. For consumers, the hi-tech aspects of the Walmart shopping experience were long limited to the use of credit cards and self-checkout counters.
But that was then. Walmart is responding to increased competition and pressured margins by embracing new technological initiatives, including drones, self-driving cars, mobile payments, facial recognition and online shopping.
That Walmart suddenly wants to appear high-tech was signaled at its week-long annual meeting in Fayetteville Arkansas. The gala event, which featured the celebrities James Corden, Nick Jonas and Katy Perry, was attended by 14,000 people, including 5,700 store employees, who heard CEO Doug McMillon proclaim that Walmart was going to reimagine retail again.
That's a good idea, since competitors like Amazon and discount chain Aldi are going all out to steal business from the mega-retailer. Mr. McMillon bravely forecast an additional $60 billion in revenue growth over the next 3 years, and pointed to various technological initiatives to help fuel that growth.
Not that Walmart is suffering. It just announced its 7th straight quarter of growth, with a 1 percent sales increase at seasoned stores. These results eclipsed those of arch-rival Target, large apparel retailers and department-store chains.
Nonetheless, Walmart reported its first decline in annual revenue since going public in 1970, and its relatively small e-commerce business has endured 5 quarters of falling sales. Simultaneously, Walmart has recently raised the wages of its hourly store employees, who for decades have endured tough working conditions and low-pay.
The retailer has committed $2 billion to its e-commerce business over the next 2 years. But the retailer's response to the growing pressures of online competition isn't limited to e-commerce.
Walmart is betting heavily on 4 ways technology can help boost sales and cut costs:
Walmart Pay, a mobile payment app, is being rolled out to all 4,600 of its stores nationwide. The app, which can run on iOS and Android smartphones, allows customers to photograph the register's scan code and pay for the purchase electronically. An e-receipt is then sent back to the phone. Walmart Pay can be funded by credit card, as well as debit, pre-paid and gift cards. If Walmart can get customers to use its app, it will be able to save millions on payment handling charges.
Walmart is replacing quality assurance workers at its giant distribution centers with drones, a move that the retailer claims will reduce the time it takes to check inventory form a month to a day. Walmart is collaborating with NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration to create the drones that will transmit up to 30 pictures per second. The drone camera scans for matching tracking numbers to uncover inventory discrepancies. True, replacing inventory workers with drones will cut thousands of jobs, but it will save the company a killing.
A new program will allow Walmart shoppers to order groceries online and have the goods delivered to their homes by Uber and Lyft drivers. The retailer is testing the concept in Miami, Phoenix and Denver. The groceries will sell for their usual prices, but there will be a $7 to $10 delivery fee tacked on. Shoppers can avoid the fee by arranging to pick up their groceries curb-side at the Walmart parking lot. In the future, Walmart hopes to use self-driving cars to further cut delivery costs by eliminating the need for drivers.
Walmart has tested a system that scans the faces of its shoppers looking for known shoplifters. Employees can use a mobile app to scan faces and identify known thieves. Walmart suspended testing of this technology, claiming it so far has not provided a good return on investment. Presumably, that equation will change as the technology improves and prices come down. When that happens, this technology could save Walmart millions in theft-related losses and reduced security personnel. Of course this type of technology could also be used to identify customer behavior for commercial purposes.
Image source: Wal-Mart Stores Inc.