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Walmart creates pathways to a better in-store experience

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BENTONVILLE, Ark. — Walmart generated headlines in February with the announcement that it would raise the baseline pay of its store associates.

Walmart generated headlines in February with the announcement that it would raise the baseline pay of its store associates.

But as significant as the move was, it was only one element of a larger, multifaceted effort to improve the in-store experience for Walmart shoppers.

Walmart U.S. executive vice president and chief operating officer Judith McKenna points out that the pay increases were part of a larger agenda for associates that also included addressing hours and scheduling issues, and expanding training and career ­development.

"We are bringing into our stores something called Pathways, which provides a route for our associates to learn and understand not just the skills required to do their job but broader retail skills as well," McKenna explained. "And one of the reasons for that is that we truly believe that one of the differences at Walmart is opportunity. More than 75% of our store management teams today started as hourly associates. And one of the things that we’re most proud of and we really want to bring back into the stores is this knowledge that one can progress to a great career at Walmart."

The response from associates to the moves has been quite positive, McKenna said, and goes beyond the pay improvements and other amenities.

"We’ve also made investments in giving our associates the tools to do their jobs effectively," Mc­Kenna said.

One example involves an upgrade to the technology that store associates use to check inventory, among other things. The Telxon gun, a handheld device with a bar code scanner and a green screen, has been a mainstay in Walmart stores ever since it was first introduced in the late 1980s. This year Walmart began replacing those devices with a more up-to-date handheld called the MC-40, which is based on the Android operating system and resembles a smartphone, complete with a touchscreen interface.

"We’ve begun giving those to associates, and departmental managers in particular, and that’s made a big difference in how they’re feeling about their ability to do their jobs effectively."

Other investments in helping store associates do their jobs better have included the development of new processes, including CAP, or the customer availability process, which is concerned with how Walmart associates get products from the back of the store onto the shelves. One benefit of the new approach is that more of the work is done on the sales floor, rather than in the ­backroom.

"And the beauty of that is that there are now more staff members on the sales floor to interact with our customers and to be friendly," McKenna said. "And we’ve talked a lot with them about the importance of saying ‘Hello,’ and ‘Thank you,’ and ‘Is there anything I can help you with?’ We have a very simple program around that, where our processes are also helping to support improvements to the store experience as well."

The changes that Walmart is making are already having a significant impact on the retailer’s store experience scores, according to McKenna, who as COO is responsible for the company’s U.S. store operations, including more than 4,100 retail locations.

The customer experience scores, an internal measure based on surveys of Walmart shoppers, offer "a great way of keeping the customer front of mind," McKenna said. The scores take into account a wide range of factors, but place a particular emphasis on Walmart’s priorities of offering a "clean, fast and friendly" shopping experience.

"We’ve seen significant improvements in how our customers have ranked us on those scores," McKenna said.

The surveys themselves are a valuable resource, because customers are invited to provide comments with their answers.

"The best practice is that every week our store managers share those comments with their associates," McKenna said. "They talk about them, and see what they need to fix. And if it’s something the home office needs to help with, they’ll give us a call and we’ll try to help them as well."

McKenna said her leadership team’s overarching mission is to simplify every aspect of the business, for the benefit of both the customer and the associate.

"It is not something we can do overnight — it’s a journey, with stage posts along the way," she said. "We’re really pleased with the milestones we’ve reached, including the improvements in the ‘clean, fast and friendly’ experience. But we know that we’ve still got a lot to do, and the best feedback we’re getting on how to simplify our business comes from our store managers themselves."