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How I fell in love with Walmart

Forget Amazon and Target. The best grocery service you can find is at Walmart. And it’s been years in the making.

How I fell in love with Walmart
[Photo: Niloo138/iStock]

I want to tell you about a place. A special place. A place where you drive up, a smiling face greets you by name, and your trunk is filled with affordable organic produce, your favorite locally made tortillas, outdoor toys to keep the kids occupied in these late summer days, and, shhh, maybe some Doritos.

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There’s no extra cost for this service—no annual VIP pass auto-billed to your credit card like a surprise gut punch every January, no “is this really what I paid for two apples?” markups.

That’s because this special place is Walmart.

I know. I know. I can barely believe it either. I’m talking about Walmart. I have fallen in love with a Supercenter. And I can’t be the only one: Walmart just posted a record quarter for online sales, which grew a mind-numbing 97%, topping overall earnings projections by $2 billion to reach $137.74 billion. In the battle of the retail super giants, it’s Walmart that has nailed the way people want to shop today by investing in effective digital tools and contactless pickup. The system Walmart has built appears to be simplistic, but it’s actually a delicate balance of technology, infrastructure, and user interface that competitors Amazon and Target haven’t figured out yet.

Amazon made me do it

Eight months ago, I was basking in the pre-COVID-19 world. I’d linger at farmers’ markets or take a leisurely hour-and-a-half stroll through Target eyeing its latest kitchen wares. Don’t call me basic; call me suburban chic. But quarantine changed everything. Suddenly, all I cared about was getting my groceries into my refrigerator with as little human contact as possible. Amazon Prime Now grocery delivery became a lifeline—I could even use it to order from Whole Foods! Life was almost normal.

But Amazon is constantly disappointing. While its Prime Now app lets you order to have groceries delivered in two-hour windows, the system is flawed. The prices fluctuate, because it’s Amazon, and they’re high, because it’s Whole Foods. When things get very busy, as they did in March, scheduling becomes an infuriating black box. When can I get my next delivery? Whenever Amazon blesses me with one.

And then there’s the delivery itself: Look, my household eats its fair share of ice cream, okay? Ordered through Prime, it arrives as a smushed melty mess (I guess Jeff Bezos doesn’t eat Klondike bars).

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[Photo: Walmart]
The first time I tried Walmart grocery pickup, the biggest hurdle was my moral compass. Walmart’s anti-union practices make my stomach churn. The considerable history of lobbying is atrocious. I’m not here to excuse any of that, nor can I ignore it. But I, like many Americans, realized after months of food delivery, I didn’t have the budget to make a political protest with every box of Premium saltines.

So I took the plunge. And dangit, I’ll admit it: Walmart pickup is just about perfect. From the ordering process to the troubleshooting, Walmart has created the ideal remote shopping experience.

Unpacking Walmart’s design

There’s a compelling reason why: Walmart has been aggressively investing in its design for years. Under the leadership of VP and head of design Valerie Casey, an alum of three legendary design studios—Pentagram, Ideo, and Frog—the company has brought design thinking to all 1.2 million employees, including its C-suite.

Walmart has been working on pickup specifically for the past five years, tweaking, tuning, and scaling it to more than 3,000 stores. “It’s almost like it’s been a rehearsal,” says Tom Ward, senior vice president of customer product at Walmart, who has spearheaded the company’s pickup and delivery operations. “Obviously with COVID, [demand] came at once. Hopefully, there aren’t more events in our life where that amount of unprecedented demand happens overnight.”

[Photo: Walmart]

The shopping experience starts with a simple app.

You pick your store to get items, and you choose the hour window you’d like to grab them. Then you build your shopping cart, like pretty much any other service. The first time you do it requires some work. You have to use the search bar for items. Finding your go-to brands takes time.

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The second time, however, your order gets exponentially faster. That’s because the app learns your tastes, and you can favorite items as easily as favoriting a tweet. After favoriting, say, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Cinnamon Toast Crunch appears on the top of every search for “cereal.” Then, when you go to check out, a screen asks you if you’ve forgotten a few items. In e-commerce, these screens are generally a scourge to upsell you on random crap you don’t want. At Walmart, it’s remarkably effective. Every time I use the app, there’s something there I had meant to add, and I didn’t. “It just solves a good customer problem,” says Ward. “Which is, people forget stuff.”

Exactly. But the best feature inside Walmart’s app is that you can make changes. Once you place your order in Amazon Prime, that’s it. Your grocery list is set in stone. Hope you didn’t forget the fifth essential ingredient to that banana bread you’re planning to make tomorrow! (Bananas.) I can’t tell you how many times I’ve cursed the Prime Now app, waiting for an order that will arrive tomorrow, knowing I can’t toss a carton of milk onto the list.

But in Walmart’s app? You can add stuff after checkout. And add more stuff. And you can keep adding stuff until a few hours before your pickup. Why? Because people forget stuff, which is an opportunity for Walmart to sell stuff that would be otherwise forgotten.

As for the experience of picking up your order: It’s even better than placing it—and that’s largely because, since February as COVID-19 began to spread, Walmart has increased its pickup capacity by 30%, allowing more people to do pickups at more stores.

At my local Walmart, that means you pull into the parking lot and see small signs pointing you to the side of the store for pickup. There, roughly a dozen freshly painted parking spots, each labeled with their own number, await. And they’re wide, baby! Go ahead and park like an idiot while you enjoy the smell of fresh asphalt.

Within a few minutes, someone walks up to your car, opens the trunk, says hello, and places your bags inside.

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[Photo: Walmart]
How does the employee know your order is yours? Walmart used to have them walk up to your car, ask who you are, and then run back into the building to grab your items. They realized this was a time sink for everyone. Now, the app asks you to check in when you’re on your way. It can track you as you make your way to Walmart (or, you can just check in when you reach the lot).

So the employee already expects you. When you pull into the spot, you can open the app to mark the numbered spot you’re in. You can also select your car color to help. How do you find this screen? It pops up automatically in the app. Who needs to find the right button when what you need is just right there?

Say you forget you’re picking up an order for your partner and don’t have the app. That’s fine, you can call a number on the sign to check in, too. Walmart’s figured out the edge cases. A few weeks ago, my mom went so far as to order her groceries at the wrong store. She was able to call Walmart’s customer service number and have the order rerouted, in just a few minutes.

What you don’t see is a logistical ballet

From a user experience perspective, you never have to know how the whole machine actually works. But as Ward deconstructed Walmart’s pickup design further, I began to appreciate it more. “Why was my ice cream never melted from Walmart?” I asked. The answer: a remarkably complex, algorithmically driven employee app.

As Ward explains, if you ever see a Walmart employee doing your personal shopping in the store, they aren’t actually shopping just for you. They’re shopping for an average of eight customers at a time. That’s important during COVID-19, as it means one person can take the place of eight, reducing human density in the store. (So while foot traffic is down 14% at Walmart, sales are actually up.) But it also means that shoppers are grabbing items in related sections, quickly, and with a plan.

[Photo: Walmart]
A personal shopper who grabs your ice cream is grabbing items exclusively in the frozen section to begin with. Software guides their precise path through the store, ensuring they spend the fewest footsteps possible along the way. “We might show it’s easier to pick from one side of the aisle, then the other, because it drives less footsteps,” says Ward.

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So your items end up being picked by several employees, who then place them into one of three zones for storage, awaiting your arrival: room temp, refrigerated, or frozen. When you’re on your way to the store, employees can anticipate your arrival to the minute, pulling out the cold items at the last second to ensure they’re protected, and consolidating all of the items picked for you into one order.

Could it be improved? Sure

Walmart pickup isn’t perfect. Ward is the first to admit it. Items can still frequently be out of stock, missing from store shelves. Furthermore, the algorithms that offer smart substitutions can be wrong—once my hot dog buns were swapped out for hamburger buns. I know they are both just bread, but, c’mon, those two meat delivery mechanisms are *not* interchangeable.

The other big catch is all of the plastic bags that Walmart loads into your trunk. So. Many. Plastic. Bags. You’ll have enough to construct a hot air balloon from a single shopping trip. It’s one of many issues that Walmart is still trying to address, using its large network of stores to test and prototype a better alternative. As Kathleen McLaughlin, EVP and chief sustainability officer at Walmart, told me last month, the company is testing bag-less pickup at 50 stores in the New York and New Jersey area, which rely on cardboard boxes as an alternative to plastic bags. Here’s hoping a similar improvement arrives in other stores soon.

COVID-19 has been a stress test on retail logistics that we never could have expected. And while I’m privileged to have been able to avoid stores entirely for a majority of 2020, I’ve seen how poorly the industry has adapted to the crisis. Costco is dead to me after forcing me to horde 18 jumbo boxes of Cheerios to secure a delivery, which arrived weeks late in a box that looked like it had been dropped off the top of a skyscraper onto my doorstep. Target has completely lost its appeal when you take away the addictive joy of strolling through its recent store redesign, and you realize how dang expensive it is—be it the company’s own design labels, or all the same old stuff you can get cheaper at Walmart anyway. (Target’s shipping system is convoluted, too, making it nearly impossible to discern what will arrive in two days, and what will arrive in two weeks.) And Amazon/Whole Foods? Sure, I still use it, but as a supplement to what I cannot get from Walmart pickup (*cough* booze and real nice arugula *cough*) rather than a baseline for my shopping.

For all of Walmart’s flaws, I appreciate the fact that it’s bringing such a seamless user experience to an industry that needs it—and without the price premiums that are often tagged on products known for “good design.”

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach

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