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Walmart: 2020 Saw Five Years of Digital Change in Five Weeks

Walmart has been adapting to changing shopping patterns throughout the course of the pandemic. Now, the discounter is figuring out how to serve the future consumer in a post-coronavirus landscape.

“We are going to meet customers where they are when they want us to meet them,” Janey Whiteside, Walmart’s executive vice president and chief customer officer, said on Tuesday, speaking with the National Retail Federation’s chief economist Ira Kalish at the retail trade group’s virtual conference.

“No one knows how this will work over the next 12 to 18 or 24 months,” Whiteside said, describing the customer as Walmart’s “North Star.” “Is it [the new] normal? We’re not quite sure. We have super exciting ambitions in the hopper. We need to make sure those are the right things our customer wants.”

Whiteside believes a return to normal will be redefined to include more remote working, and could see consumers less interested in traveling. Customers are demanding more delivery choices, asking to get orders two days and sometimes within hours.

“The decades of what we were able to do in building a supply chain served us well,” Whiteside said, adding that the company saw a “massive” shift where “five years of growth of digital acceleration in terms of pickup and delivery [took place in] five weeks.” The customer group that saw the fastest growth in adopting pickup and delivery was the 65-and-older segment. Whiteside said Walmart was able to quickly pivot and added 40 percent more availability of pickup slots, and also introduced new services, such as express delivery in two hours.

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Because the priority has been staff and customer safety, Walmart also found as many places as it could to provide contactless options, including in-store payments, to give customers different ways to get what they needed.

Whiteside emphasized that with all the data it has at its disposal—”everybody is a data company these days”—Walmart can glean what its role should be in the shopping journey, and use the information to generate services to better fit people’s needs. One example she cited was using information, with the customer’s approval, that tells Walmart whether the person requires gluten-free food, and then sending notification on products that meet that requirement.

Walmart continues to test product delivery straight into customer refrigerators. “It’s interesting how quickly you can build that trust with your consumers. Ten years ago, would you trust a retailer to pick your groceries for you?” she asked. Another example of how services are changing is the use of a mobile app to arrange for car service. The rise in these services are based on trust, she said. In the case of the discounter’s home delivery service, she said the people doing the deliveries are wearing web cams, and if people trust who is doing it, there is an upside to coming home and finding eggs in the fridge and bread on the counter. “Once it starts, and it works, it’s so appealing. Next is auto replenishment,” she said.

One thing in particular Whiteside wanted to emphasize was that stores aren’t going anywhere. “People are still craving that experiential component of going to a store. We’re thinking about what is that next iteration,” she said.

Whatever that is, Whiteside said Walmart will maintain its value proposition. She noted the bifurcation across society at large resulting from the pandemic, stating that almost half of its customers in November cited worries about the economy. “They are looking for ways to save on basic products and making sure they don’t have to sacrifice on experiences for their family. That makes our proposition of everyday low price even more valuable. The notion of saving money to live better is more pertinent than ever. We’re really focused on that,” Whiteside said. “Galvanizing around that customer who needs us more than ever is intrinsic to our purpose. We know we have a role to play. Those are the things that keep us going because they really need us,” she said.

Speaking more broadly, NRF’s chief economist expects a negative economic outlook for much of 2021, considering new Covid-19 strains cropping up.

Mike George, the outgoing NRF chairman and current president and CEO of Qurate Retail Group Inc. slated to retire at the end of 2021, kicked off the NRF Show with a keynote address on how the pandemic reshaped retail, including how companies innovated, expanded their online capabilities and accelerated projects that otherwise would take years. He cited a Sam’s Club mobile app that integrated the ability for national pickup, a Lowe’s initiative for curbside delivery a year ahead of schedule, and Target’s online reservation system that allows consumers to see if their local store has a line outside and, if so, lets them reserve a spot before they leave their homes.

“These innovations perfectly align with what our customers needed from us,” he said.

Qurate’s retail operation teamed with the NRF Foundation for its small business spotlight, showcasing 60 firms hard hit by the pandemic and featured them on QVC, HSN and Zulily where the entrepreneurs can promote their product and tell their stories, he said.

NRF has also been supporting the industry, whether acting as the voice of change to address racial inequality by providing resource groups, training, or tuition assistance, or advocating for federal stimulus to provide relief for retailers and consumers, George said. NRF has also sought to improve global trade relations, and is working toward a bipartisan approach to infrastructure investment. Because retail is an industry that employs 32 million people and supports 52 million American jobs, or one in four private-sector jobs, “NRF will be there making sure our voices are heard,” George said.

As for the mob rioting that trashed the U.S. Capitol building last week, George said NRF CEO Matthew Shay has called elected officials to “focus on government stability and fidelity to our Constitution and well established political norms as we all strive to create unity out of division.”