Walmart's VP of e-commerce talks pickup towers

Retail express pickup
Walmart's expansion of its pickup towers is just one more step in combining its online and offline strategies.

In an effort to keep up with the exciting pace of retail, Walmart recently announced the expansion of its digital in-store pickup towers at locations around the country. 

"Customers are telling us they want to save time and money," said Mike Turner, vice president of e-commerce operations for Walmart U.S. "The pickup tower is a great example of how we’re testing new, unique concepts that help us bring their expectations to life."

FierceRetail spoke with Turner to learn more about the retailer's plans for integrating digital and brick-and-mortar strategies in order to meet the evolving demands of consumers.

FierceRetail (FR): When did initial testing begin, and how has customer and employee feedback been thus far in regards to the towers?

Mike Turner (MT): We’ve been testing the pickup tower throughout the year in markets across the country, and the response from our associates and customers has been overwhelmingly positive. Our customers like the added convenience of the pickup towers, and our associates love providing this time-saving offering in their market. Overall, we continue to see steady growth in the number of customers using the pickup tower every day.

FR: Where in the store layout will most of the towers be located?

MT: We’re testing a variety of layout options, but the majority of the pickup towers are located at the front of the store where it’s convenient for our customers. 

FR: Why were the first 20 locations chosen as a test, and where will the next 80 store locations be?

MT: There are many considerations to market selection, including e-commerce demand and space availability in the store. As we go into the next 80, we are looking to test a number of different store and customer attributes that will help us understand the best way to implement this new technology. 

FR: Have there been any stumbling blocks along the way regarding implementation? 

MT: There are always challenges with new technology, which is why we test in a variety of locations and environments. The key to overcoming these challenges is to listen and iterate—a cycle that never stops. One of the initial takeaways is the need to educate our customers and associates on how to use the technology. It is driving us to further simplify the experience and provide information along the way to help them understand what to expect. The feedback from our associates and customers is leading to ongoing improvements that make the experience better and better. 

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FR: How do the towers differ from the pickup lockers that were originally tested?

MT: The pickup tower is a dynamic system that can hold about 300 items, where the lockers are fixed based on the number of doors. We have learned a lot from the original technology and have started testing the lockers paired with a tower, which enables more of the orders to be self-service. They are both great examples of new systems we’re testing. 

FR: What is the staff role in this process? Do employees feel threatened by this automation?

MT: We’re seeing a variety of new roles being created to support new technologies like the pickup tower. Our associates load the items into the tower, help customers use the technology and troubleshoot the system. This combination of people and technology is helping us deliver an experience that meets our customers' wants and needs.

FR: With more and more new technology being implemented into stores, how do you assure your employees that they will still be of value?

MT: Walmart is first and foremost a people business. Our customers love the convenience technology can provide, but they also want the human touch you can’t get with online-only retailers. As we bring new technologies into our stores, the role our associates play becomes even more important.

FR: Ultimately, do you see this type of technology taking away from in-store jobs?

MT: We’re actually seeing new and different roles being created as a result of these new technologies and services. Jobs like personal shoppers who fulfill orders for our online grocery pickup program and customer service hosts who support our Scan & Go program are great examples of that. As retail changes, the role these associates play becomes a critical component to the overall experience.  

FR: Moving forward, if BOPIS continues to trend in popularity, is the pickup towers program scalable to meet larger needs?

MT: We’re continuing to test and improve new ways to simplify the pickup process in our stores. The tower is just one of the many technologies that will help us meet the need for a fast, convenient shopping experience. And, when we pair the pickup tower with services like online grocery pickup, same-day pickup and the pickup discount, the overall experience for our customers becomes even more compelling.