'Tis the season for a Walmart tech overhaul?
It's commonly thought that retailers are loath to upgrade the point of sale as the holidays approach, since they don't want to introduce any variables that could lead to lost sales.
But as with everything, Amazon's presence has changed the way retailers think. And Walmart isn't about to be left behind while Amazon forges ahead with its own retail innovations.
The problem Walmart faces is that its customer base includes people who are presumably less tech-savvy than Amazon's e-commerce devotees. Even when Walmart.com may provide the better experience than Walmart stores, those shoppers still come to shop in person.
To bridge the gap between customer preference and digital convenience, Walmart announced Tuesday that it was providing its store employees with a new app to help customers order items from Walmart.com when they are wandering the store and can't locate a specific product.
"This is another spoke in the wheel when thinking about the technologies that Walmart has added in stores," said Walmart spokesman Ragan Dickens. "We wanted to give associates the assistance with their role and give the customer a better shopping option."
In that regard, the service is meant to last well beyond the holiday season, Dickens said.
The "Walmart.com app is offering customer options to a cash-centric customer or one without access to the Internet," he added. "It provides the option to buy something that might not be in the store at that time."
The new process comes to the retailer not long after it dropped "Scan&Go," a process that allowed consumers to scan their own items as they shop. The new digital shopping option also comes as Walmart launches its Sam's Club Now tech hub to dabble with augmented reality, artificial intelligence and voice-controlled or cashierless checkout.
At the same time, Target reportedly is accepting Apple Pay in some San Francisco area stores, an indication that the retailer's long holdout on accepting the mobile wallet may be coming to a close at some point, according to Mac Observer.
Target's point of sale has long omitted support for Near Field Communication payments, but the expected proliferation of contactless cards in the U.S. may be causing Target and other retailer holdouts to reconsider their stance.
The major card networks pushed for retailers to add NFC to the point of sale at the same time they converted terminals to accept chip card payments more than two years ago. It was the first signal from the networks that anticipated NFC as the go-to contactless transaction technology as they eyed the potential for mobile wallets and contactless cards to grow in stature and use in the coming years.
It may seem like Target is late to the game on accepting NFC, but more importantly, the ability to capture Apple Pay and similar payments sets the stage for the store to initiate other in-store shopping experiences through the Target app that may be able to compete with Amazon in the future, said Richard Crone, chief executive of San Carlos, Calif.-based payments consulting firm Crone Consulting LLC.
"Target is doing what it needs to do [in testing for Apple Pay], but there's a much bigger thing at play here, and that is redefining the retail experience," Crone said. "Previously, the only customer interaction was payment at the POS, now some new models are re-deploying talent and resources to improve customer experience and increase sales in other areas of the store."
If retailers are seeking a way to redefine themselves without leaping too far forward into the cashierless setting of an Amazon Go store, Crone said a "working model" already exists in the Apple Store.
"There is no traditional checkout in the Apple Store," Crone said. "It is all done through mobile or app."
Walmart's new in-store e-commerce option provides a service the retailer had not previously offered, plus it is likely to ignite more Walmart.com transactions in the process.
The in-store app allows workers to carry mobile devices designed to help customers check out. Customers can choose any payment method they desire, but would still use the store's point-of-sale terminals to complete the transaction.
If customers are seeking specific items that may not be available in the store, they can be helped by an associate right in the store aisles. The employee can purchase the items online and provide the customer with a paper or e-mail receipt to be used at the store POS to complete the transaction, Walmart said in a Tuesday press release.
The shipping process begins as soon as the checkout is completed.
Walmart also said the new in-store app for online shopping complements the "Check Out With Me" service in which store employees use mobile devices to help customers check out in heavy-traffic areas of the store. The mega-retailer had the feature in service during Black Friday last month.
Walmart had previously tested the mobile checkout devices in their lawn and garden centers in some stores during the spring.
"In-aisle checkout is just the tip of the iceberg for redefining how to effectively use the store space in an era marked by freeing up checkout lanes for merchandising," Crone said. "It is all about sales per square foot, getting rid of non-sales oriented space improves sales per square foot."