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All Contents © 2018The Kiplinger Washington Editors
By Bob Niedt, Online Editor
| July 6, 2016
Let’s be honest: Shoppers have a love-hate relationship with Walmart. The giant retailer consistently ranks at the bottom in customer satisfaction surveys, yet 260 million people worldwide still visit its stores every week. 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 grocery chain within shouting distance, including Aldi, Safeway and even upscale Whole Foods.
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.
SEE ALSO: 8 Things Shoppers Should Know About Wegmans
Walmart is aiming this year to overhaul produce sections at some 3,000 of its 3,465 supercenters. Depending on your neighborhood store, you’ll also find gourmet cheeses, charcuterie and sushi. The bakery aisle is getting a makeover, too. It’s all part of a bid by Walmart to take its look and grocery lineup more upscale. The company even opened a Culinary and Innovation Center test kitchen near its 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.
SEE ALSO: 10 Things You Should Know About Shopping at Aldi
The stalwart Walmart front-of-the-store greeter has in recent years been pushed back from the entrance. That’s changing. Walmart is returning greeters to the entrances of some stores to welcome shoppers and answer questions.
But in other stores the greeter is getting a wave goodbye. Walmart has created a new position known as a “customer host,” who in addition to greeting shoppers is responsible for helping with returns on the way in and checking receipts, warehouse-club-style, on the way out. Wal-Mart plans to hire 9,000 customer hosts nationwide, either from within its ranks of displaced greeters or from the outside.
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In a swipe at Amazon Prime, Walmart is now offering free two-day shipping, via its no-frills ShippingPass service. Members who pay the $49 annual fee get the free shipping with no minimum purchases. Returns are free, too, either by mail or at a physical Walmart store.
Unlike Amazon’s $99-a-year Prime service, ShippingPass is just a shipping pass. You don’t get streaming audio and video or other services Prime members enjoy. But then, it’s half the cost. And like Prime, not everything Walmart sells online qualifies for ShippingPass shipping. Eligible items are marked that way online.
SEE ALSO: 5 Surprising Perks of Amazon Prime
Walmart’s grocery customers can shop online and have their orders filled by neighborhood stores. Groceries will be bagged and waiting for pick up. Workers will even bring your order to your car for you. There are no additional fees. Online grocery pickup is available in about 40 markets.
Rather have your order delivered? Walmart recently announced it was testing home delivery via ride-hailing services Uber and Lyft. Customers shop online and pay a delivery fee of $7 to $10. Walmart’s “personal shoppers” pluck the items from the shelves, bag them and hand them off to the driver. The company is live now with deliveries by Lyft in Denver and Uber in Phoenix. In Miami, the concept is being tested at Sam’s Club in conjunction with delivery service Deliv.
SEE ALSO: 11 Secrets to Shopping at Costco
Via the Walmart mobile app, the retailer is rolling out a new program that allows customers to pay for in-store purchases with their smartphones. Called Walmart Pay, the new service also stores customer receipts digitally in case returns are necessary, so there’s no need for paper receipts.
Walmart Pay works with any major credit card, debit card, pre-paid card or Walmart gift card. The company says the payment option will be accepted in every one of its stores this summer.
SEE ALSO: 8 Things You Should Never Keep in Your Wallet
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 MoneyCard card program.
Then there’s Bluebird, an alternative to a traditional bank checking account. A Bluebird financial account through Walmart permits direct deposit, online bill pay, ATM withdrawals and more.
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Longing for the old Walmart in the digital age? Say hello again to Smiley, Walmart’s icon of low prices. First introduced in Walmart’s aisles in 1990 – before the spread of Walmart’s grocery-laden supercenters – the yellow smiley face Smiley went dormant for the last decade. But considering the popularity of emojis today, its resurgence should come as no surprise.
SEE ALSO: 11 Worst Things to Buy at Walmart
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