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Wal-Mart Testing Various New CE Initiatives

Wal-Mart is testing home installation services at its Sam’s Club division and the use of in-store HDTV “specialists” at its flagship discount stores as part of the retailer’s latest round of CE initiatives.

Wal-Mart is also introducing several Sony Bravia LCD TV SKUs this summer as part of an ongoing effort to upgrade its CE assortment. (See p. 1.)

Installation services are being tested with a third-party provider in 106 of the company’s 580 Sam’s Clubs, according to Seong Ohm, Sam’s Club’s electronics VP. Test markets include Florida and Michigan.

“It’s at the pilot stage, but if successful we’re going to roll it out,” she told TWICE. “And if it rolls out we may also test delivery and in-home service.”

Ohm added that Sam’s segments CE into three principal areas: entertainment, productivity and mobility.

The HDTV consultants, presently deployed in less than 100 supercenters, are highly trained, yellow-shirted product specialists from Wal-Mart’s entertainment rack jobber, Anderson Merchandisers of Amarillo, Texas. “That’s in total test mode right now,” said Gary Severson, the chain’s entertainment and electronics senior VP.

The tests and product initiatives were disclosed during store and club walk-throughs in Rogers and Bentonville, Ark., on the eve of Wal-Mart’s annual shareholders meeting recently.

The HDTV specialists work the floor near the TV displays, providing detailed answers to customers’ questions; trading them up; suggesting add-on sales; and handing-off them off to the Connection Center where they could purchase a cable TV plan.

Additionally, Wal-Mart has located a self-service, three-step guide directly below the HD displays in select stores, intended to walk consumers through the purchase and installation process, and which include suggestive sells of additional cables. A similar-style guide appears over digital cameras.

Although the specialists are not formally involved in training store employees, one employee in a CE department visited by TWICE suggested that sales clerks could glean product information and sales techniques by observing the specialists at work.

“One of the things we’ve been working on is our customer experience and how we can improve [it] to make sure that the customers already in the stores are going to be willing to spend their dollars with us here in our electronics area,” Severson told TWICE.

Wal-Mart is also offering electronic training modules in kiosks surrounding its Connections Centers that will enable departmental employees to train at will during slack periods, according to Severson. The communications package includes overhead navigational signing, category signing and fact-tag signing in front of individual products that have displays (TWICE, May 21, p. 1).

In advance of the new Sony SKUs, the No. 2 CE retailer has also rolled out an assortment of sharply priced LCDs in a bid to offer consumers a choice between top tier and tertiary brands. Severson cited 42W-inch LCD panels from Sanyo and Vizio at less than $1,000 and a 32W-inch model from Vizio under $500 among the offerings, although the company’s new consumer message focuses on value, rather than just low-price merchandise.

“Over the last year we’ve added in Toshiba laptop computers, Verizon phones, Samsung TVs and we’re adding Dell computers,” Severson said (TWICE, June 4, p. 4). “We’ve been going after the brands that our customers want and that they trust.”

Wal-Mart has been struggling to increase customer counts and same-store sales as its core blue-collar shopper has been slammed by soaring gas prices and a sputtering economy. Those developments in tandem earlier forced Wal-Mart to pay more attention to staple items and the everyday low prices that made it the world’s largest retailer, although it continues to aim higher in select categories including home, apparel and CE.