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How Walmart Is Thinking Outside The (Big) Box

In its quest to catch up with Amazon and leverage its big-box real estate, Walmart is testing a host of retail innovations that embrace both high and low technology.

Ironically, the low-tech trial comes from the most technology-driven guy on the payroll, Marc Lore, the Internet innovator who launched and now runs Walmart’s U.S. e-commerce business.

The concept is brilliant in its simplicity: Ship online orders to stores … for delivery by sales associates. As Lore explained in a company blog, delivery duty is completely voluntary, and lets employees earn some extra income by dropping off packages on their way home from work.

Associates can choose the size, weight and number of packages they deliver — as well as which days they’re available — and Walmart software can determine which customers are closest to their commutes.

For the company, the local-service concept can cut fulfillment time and last-mile shipping costs, while engendering goodwill with customers and workers.

“Walmart has strength in numbers with 4,700 stores across the U.S. and more than a million associates,” Lore wrote. “Our stores put us within 10 miles of 90 percent of the U.S. population. Now imagine all the routes our associates drive to and from work and the houses they pass along the way. It’s easy to see why this test could be a game-changer.”

The program is being piloted at a trio of stores in New Jersey and Arkansas where it often achieves next-day delivery. So far, added Lore, the response from shoppers and associates “has been great.”

Meanwhile, on the high-tech side, Jeff Muench, Walmart’s business development senior director, has provided an update on the chain’s next generation of supercenters, elements of which are being tested around the country.

Two stores, however, in Tomball, Texas and Lake Nona, Fla., have been completely redesigned with new floor plans and technological enhancements. The updated layouts provide more intuitive adjacencies, like placing tech repair services near the CE section, and combining health and wellness into a single department.

On the tech front, CE associates are using projectors to explain and demo connected products by beaming interactive images onto tables and walls, while customers can also shop Walmart’s online-only assortment from floor-standing touchscreens, and pay for their purchases in fast-pass checkout lanes using “Scan & Go” price wands.