Walmart finds success through “falling in love” with customer problems

NRF Nexus: Chief Commerce Officer Tom Ward on delivering exceptional experiences
Fiona Soltes
NRF Contributor

Astonishing things happen when retailers fall in love with customer problems. Solutions such as in-home grocery delivery and drone drop-offs become reality. So, too, does the opportunity for items to be fulfilled by a personal shopper in the closest store, then delivered by driverless electric vehicle, with minimal boxing needed, with that vehicle making other deliveries in the neighborhood along the way.

“It’s a really sustainable, regenerative way to serve our customers,” said Walmart Executive Vice President and Chief Ecommerce Officer Tom Ward at NRF Nexus. “It starts to represent this win-win-win.” And it goes on to beg the question of what else might be possible.

Ward, who oversees the company’s autonomous delivery and other last-mile innovation initiatives, surprised many in the audience — including Ann Sattin, vice president and general manager of retail, national client group, American Express, who joined him for the conversation — with efforts already in place. The conversation took place with Sattin in person and Ward via Zoom.

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With so much emphasis on ecommerce and technology today, it would be easy to assume physical stores could get lost in the shuffle. At Walmart, it’s the opposite.

“The view I have on this is, our stores are the star of the show,” Ward said. “When it comes to truly omnichannel retail, those assets, the 4,700 locations that we have fantastically positioned in the communities where our customers live and work and shop, are getting connected.” And the nearest Walmart, he said, “is the one in your pocket.”

“If you connect those pieces really, really well, what you actually find is that the role the store plays has evolved.”

As a store manager, most of the customers Ward served were those who walked through the physical doors. Customers still choose physical: They love the convenience, the various themes for different occasions, and curbside pickup and delivery. And they increasingly love the way the store is connected to the company’s other assets.

“If there’s one thing our customers tell us, it’s that they want more convenience,” he said. “And often convenience means speed.”

Ward shared a variety of partnerships and initiatives that help deliver just that — and not only for Walmart. The company recognizes that great density drives speed as well as lowers costs. That led to the recent launch of a white-label service, Walmart GoLocal, allowing others like The Home Depot to access Walmart’s last-mile capabilities, technology and footprint to help deliver items to customers faster. Deliveries can be combined to reduce costs and increase speed, and include smaller retailers as well as large.

Walmart also has partnered with self-driving box truck company Gatik, using the vehicles to deliver items between its stores autonomously. There’s also a partnership with Cruise that sees deliveries being made to homes in Scottsdale, Ariz., by driverless cars.

Then there have been partnerships with Zipline and DroneUp for drone delivery: Zipline loads purchases into a box, attaches that box to a fixed-wing drone that has a range of 50 miles, and delivers the box to a customer’s lawn via biodegradable parachute. As for DroneUp, Walmart recently announced it would expand its DroneUp delivery network to 34 sites by the end of the year, providing the potential to reach 4 million households across six states.

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When considering the best possible infrastructure for a drone delivery, Ward said, “you kind of come back to the store. You’ve got all these assets that are brilliantly located, within 10 miles of 90 percent of the U.S. population.” That brings “a whole new meaning to ‘convenience.’”

Imagine, for example, being in the midst of a backyard cookout and realizing there’s no ketchup. Rather than having to leave the house, the host could have it quickly delivered by drone.

“This is not science fiction,” he said. “This is really happening.”

And when it comes to the “ultimate” convenience of in-home delivery, Walmart recently announced it was scaling its InHome delivery service to reach 30 million households this year.

Bringing all these things together, Ward said, comes back to the company’s purpose, to save people money so they can live better. That means not only shopping, but also financial services and health care.

“Customers trust us to save them money,” he said. “And they need increasingly creative ways to help them live better. That could mean all kinds of things.”

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