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All Contents © 2019The Kiplinger Washington Editors
By Bob Niedt, Online Editor
| July 25, 2019
Let’s be honest: Many shoppers have a love-hate relationship with Walmart. Prices are competitive (love), but the giant retailer consistently receives low marks in customer satisfaction surveys (hate). And yet, 265 million shoppers worldwide still visit its stores every week, so Walmart must be doing something right. If, like me, you abandoned Walmart years ago, it may be time to reconsider. The Bentonville, Ark.-based company has been fast remaking itself, sending shots over the bows of rivals ranging from Target and Amazon to just about every supermarket chain within shouting distance, including Aldi, Safeway, Kroger and even upscale Whole Foods.
Changes are happening both online and in-store. In an effort to accelerate its e-commerce business, Walmart paid $3 billion for online retail giant Jet.com. It also spent $16 billion buying the Indian online retail powerhouse Flipkart. In addition, it revamped its once-clunky Walmart.com website. The efforts are paying off. According to estimates from eMarketer, Walmart's e-commerce sales will increase 33% in 2019, giving it a 4.6% share of total retail e-commerce sales. That would put Walmart in the third spot just behind eBay (6.1% share), light years away from No. 1 Amazon (47.0%), but well ahead of the likes of Apple (3.8%), Home Depot (1.7%), Best Buy (1.3%) and Macy's (1.2%). As for its physical stores, Walmart is spending over $800 million this year to build new stores and remodel existing locations, with California, Florida and Texas getting the most attention.
We recently checked out a couple of Walmart stores in Northern Virginia to take in some of the changes unfurled by Uncle Wally. We also gazed into Walmart’s online world of wonders. Take a look at what we found.
In my many years as a retail reporter, I followed the explosive growth of Walmart as it rolled out its massive supercenters in the 1990s. That brought groceries alongside the household items the chain grew famous on. To me, the Achilles’ heel of Walmart’s grocery lineup was always its produce, which never seemed as fresh as the fruits and vegetables stocked by competitors.
It was a far different produce section I saw on a recent visit to a Walmart in Chantilly, Va. Fruits and vegetables seemed fresh, and signs indicated some produce was sourced locally in Virginia. That mimics what the most successful supermarket purveyors of produce, especially Wegmans, are doing. In a further nod to Wegmans, Walmart seems to get the notion that lively displays help push the product.
Walmart in 2018 overhauled produce sections at many of its 5,000 stores. Depending on your neighborhood store, you’ll also find gourmet cheeses, charcuterie and sushi. The bakery aisle got a makeover, too. It’s all part of a bid by Walmart to take its look and grocery lineup more upscale, an effort that continues through 2019. The company even opened a Culinary & Innovation Center test kitchen near its Arkansas headquarters to develop new food items.
And here’s something I thought I’d never see at Walmart: A healthy push into the world of organic foods. While the chain is phasing out the Wild Oats organic brand from its shelves, it’s replacing it with newly launched organic items from its low-cost Great Value line.
The stalwart front-of-the-store Walmart greeter is being phased out. Walmart is replacing its "people greeters" with "customer hosts" who have expanded duties including handling refunds, keeping the aisles clean and checking receipts warehouse-club-style as shoppers exit stores. Since hosts are required to perform more tasks than old-school greeters, they'll be able to assist with a wider range of customer needs.
The decision hasn't been universally celebrated. In particular, disabled greeters (and their advocates) have complained that they are being forced out because they can't perform the additional duties required of hosts. After a wave of bad PR, Walmart U.S. stores president and CEO Greg Foran vowed to make every effort to find new positions for displaced disabled greeters.
In a swipe at Amazon, Walmart is now offering free next-day shipping on orders of $35 or more, reaching 75% of the U.S. population this year, including 40 of the top 50 major U.S. metro areas.
But unlike Amazon Prime, which also offers free next-day delivery, you don't have to have a membership to be eligible for Walmart's free shipping. (Prime members pay $119 annually for access to expedited delivery options including next-day and even same-day delivery.)
Walmart’s grocery customers can place orders online and then drive to their neighborhood store to have their bagged groceries loaded into the car for free. There's no need to leave your vehicle or enter the store. There's a $30 order minimum required for curbside grocery pickup, but hey, it's pretty easy to spend $30 on groceries. There are no additional fees. Online grocery pickup is already available in dozens of markets, and Walmart is accelerating the rollout of this service to 3,100 stores by the end of the year in order to compete with other online retailers.
Walmart is also building onto the corner of many of its stores a dedicated area to pick up non-grocery items bought online, so shoppers don't have to wander into the sprawling Walmart Supercenters. It's fast, easy and there's no surcharge or membership fees. And if the item is already on the shelves of that store, you can get it the same day.
Walmart is rapidly stepping up its grocery delivery game. In January, it added a host of delivery service companies to help fulfill and deliver groceries in what will be 300 metro areas by the end of the year and a total of 1,600 stores, double what it was at the beginning of the year.
You know how this plays: You order online and go to the delivery option. Once the order is placed, Walmart-trained personal shoppers (they take a three-week course) do the picking and bagging in the store for same-day delivery by one of Walmart's delivery services. There's no markup on the groceries; you pay the same price you pay in the store. However, after a free trial delivery or two, you will be charged a small delivery fee. You have to spend $30 or more for grocery delivery.
Walmart’s in-store MoneyCenter (or in some stores, its customer service desk) acts as a quasi-bank and Western Union, offering convenient access to financial services ranging from check cashing to money transfers. Stores also process bill payments, issue money orders and even print checks. Walmart also has its own branded credit card and its own reloadable pre-paid Walmart Money Card program. You can even send money Walmart-to-Walmart to friends, relatives and assorted others. It costs $4 for up to $50; $8 to send $51 to $1,000; and $16 to send $1,001 to $2,500.
Then there’s Bluebird, an alternative to a traditional bank checking account. A Bluebird by American Express financial account through Walmart permits direct deposit, online bill pay, ATM withdrawals and more.
Walmart also has your (good) health in mind. Periodically, its stores offer Walmart Wellness, a day of free health screenings and resources.
As part of the Walmart Wellness program, customers will get a free health screening (including checking blood glucose, blood pressure, body mass), flu shots, low-cost immunizations, free vision screenings (in stores with vision centers) and access to a pharmacist for a personal conversation. Other perks in the past have included free total cholesterol screenings, third-party vendors offering health-related services and free healthy snacks.
Check you local Walmart for the date of the next free health screening.
Walmart over decades past was known for notoriously slow checkouts, long lines and a lot of registers -- but most of them closed.
Walmart's fixing that, with banks of self-checkout registers overseen by a single employee. That was my experience at two Walmarts in Northern Virginia. One had a dozen self-checkout registers clustered together (so fewer employees are needed at the front end) and they were filled to capacity in the midday hour I visited. Each of the registers has a small video screen where you can watch yourself check out, presumably while someone is watching on the other end.
If you're one of the thousands of retired Americans living life on the road, you may be able to park your RV overnight at Walmart. There are no hookups, of course, and not every Walmart allows it, but many do. (Walmart notes more than 1,000 of its locations do not allow parking, usually because of restrictions imposed by the landlord of the property or the municipality.)
Walmart doesn't charge for parking and notes roaming RV owners are some of its best customers. As a courtesy, RV owners say, overnighters should do some shopping in the store that allowed overnight parking. You should check with a store manager whether it's OK to park in their lot overnight. And, of course, there's a dedicated website for more information.
Those blue vests Walmart workers have been wearing for eons, and get a not-so-subtle shout out on a TV sitcom, are finally changing.
Replacing the standard-issue blue vests are ones that reflect the color of the outside of your neighborhood Walmart: gray ("modern gray," to be precise). Punching it up is trim in either neon blue, pink or green (and Lindsey looks really happy wearing his). The sharper-looking vests also have larger pockets, presumably for all the electronics store workers now carry. The last time Walmart updated its vests was 2014.
The giant retailer, mostly famous for fuddy-duddy apparel, cheap basics and knockoffs, is stepping up its fashion game. Walmart is teaming up with upscale Lord & Taylor to offer 125 premium clothing and accessories brands including Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein.
Walmart didn't stop there. It also bought Bonobos.com, a trendy online clothing retailer for men, and Shoebuy.com, which is now known as Shoes.com.