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All Contents © 2020The Kiplinger Washington Editors
By Bob Niedt, Online Editor
| July 25, 2019Updated May 2020
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.
"Walmart sells just about everything you could ever need so planning a trip to this big box retailer could make your life easier and reduce the need to go into multiple stores,” says consumer savings expert Andrea Woroch.
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 eMarketer, Walmart's e-commerce sales in 2019 helped catapult it past eBay to claim second place for the first time, with 5.3% of U.S. e-commerce sales (eBay had 4.7%). That’s still light years away from No. 1 Amazon (38.7%), but well ahead of the likes of Apple (3.7%), The Home Depot (1.7%), Wayfair (1.5%), Best Buy (1.3%) and Target (1.2%). As for its physical stores, Walmart spent more than $800 million last year to build new stores and remodel existing locations, with California, Florida and Texas getting the most attention.
In this pandemic, some Walmart stores have been forced to close due to outbreaks among employees, and some workers recently protested a perceived lack of communication from company officials. Still, most stores remain open, providing essential groceries to customers willing to pick up curbside or venture inside, with restrictions on customer volume and movement. (The stores' auto centers are temporarily shuttered.) Online, Walmart has temporarily discontinued same-day shipping.
Prior to shelter-in-place guidance, we checked out a couple of Walmart stores in Northern Virginia to take in some of the changes unfurled by Uncle Wally. We've also been tracking new features and services across Walmart.com. Take a look at what you'll find.
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 2020. 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 a wide swath of the U.S. population (on the Walmart site, add your zip code and toggle the next day delivery button to see if it’s available at your store). You must make sure all of the items are next day eligible. They’ll be marked as such on the site.
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 delivery.)
In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, Walmart has shifted its delivery strategy. Due to high demand, the service may be suspended. And Walmart’s delivery drivers are practicing social distancing by staying the car when picking up groceries (a Walmart associate loads the packages into the vehicle). And customers can authorize the drive to leave the deliveries on doorsteps without having the customer sign for it.
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.
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. Click here to see if it’s available in your town. Note that Walmart has implemented no-contact pickup; employees will load the groceries into your car.
Folks who shopped Walmart via its app had to hurdle this: There was one app for the grocery section of Walmart (Walmart Grocery) and another app for everything else (simply, Walmart App).
“Now, everything is in one place, so consumers can shop for groceries and organize for pickup or delivery, and access services like Walmart Pay and item finder,” notes smart shopping expert Trae Bodge of TrueTrae.com.
Now there's one app for all: The Walmart App, available in your favorite app store.
Walmart’s in-store MoneyCenter (or in some stores, its customer service desk) acts as a quasi-bank and Western Union (actually, MoneyGram), offering convenient access to financial services ranging from tax services 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 MoneyCard program. You can even cash checks at Walmart. It costs $4 for up to $1,000 and a maximum of $8 for checks of more than $1,000.
”The Walmart MoneyCard is a great option for those needing a prepaid debit card,” says shopping expert Bodge. “You can cash your paychecks at Walmart and load the fund directly in the MoneyCard, or you can arrange for direct deposit. The card also has additional benefits, like the ability to earn cash back on Walmart purchases and 2% APY on up to $1,000 in your free savings account. Walmart has also waived monthly maintenance fees on the MoneyCard through June 30, due to [the coronavirus pandemic). This is for new customers who deposit at least $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.
And the new Capital One Walmart Rewards Mastercard just won Kiplinger's gold medal for Best Shopping Rewards Card in our annual roundup of the Best Rewards Credit Cards. Cardholders get five points per dollar on purchases at Walmart.com, including grocery pickup and delivery. For the first year, cardholders also get five points on in-store Walmart purchases if they use the card through Walmart Pay; after 12 months, in-store purchases get two points per dollar. Plus, cardholders earn two points per dollar at Walmart and Murphy USA gas stations and on dining and travel purchases and one point on other spending. Cardholders can trade their points at a rate of a penny apiece for statement credits, gift cards and travel bookings.
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 your 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 (and plenty of social distancing). 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. Note: This is especially important during the pandemic.
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. It bought Bonobos.com, a trendy online clothing retailer for men, and Shoebuy.com, which is now known as Shoes.com.
Walmart also owns the outdoors apparel website Moosejaw.com, as well as the home goods website Allswell.
Bodge is a big fan of Walmart’s charitable work, especially lately.
“Walmart and the Walmart Foundation are doing good,” says Bodge. “They are committing to donating $25 million to COVID-19-related causes, including efforts around the world to prevent, detect and treat, and food services, like meal programs for the underserved. They also regularly commit funds to communities affected by natural disasters, like the recent tornadoes in Tennessee.”
Walmart’s business model has always been based on low prices. But shopping experts note there are ways to save even more.
Bodge points out the savings that come from savings platform CouponCabin.com.
”For example, right now, you can earn 4% cash back plus 9% Walmart Bonus Cash simply by visiting CouponCabin.com first or by installing their Sidekick browser extension, which will alert you to savings opportunities automatically when you visit Walmart.com,” says Bodge.
There’s also the gift card website GiftCardGranny, which offers discounted Walmart gift cards among its holdings. “Right now, you can save 1%, but that amount will fluctuate throughout the year, so it’s always worth checking to see what savings are available before heading to Walmart to shop,” says Bodge.