It’s late on Thanksgiving Day, and the energy within every Walmart store is electric. In minutes, the doors will open, and crowds of anxious customers will fill the aisles. Hordes of shoppers who might otherwise be home snoozing off a big meal are just outside, ravenous for deals. They will rush through the doors, temporarily oblivious to the usual mores of shopping etiquette. It’s a high-stakes, once-a-year event, and the collective mood will run from giddy to aggressive.
Walmart’s associates are poised for the clock to strike 6 p.m. They are excited and anxious as well, but most importantly, they are prepared. Where a few years ago there may have been trepidation around how an early Black Friday opening would go, today, Walmart associates feel confident and ready.
In large part, that’s thanks to a Virtual Reality-based Immersive Learning program, which has provided associates with the opportunity to run through hyper-real practice scenarios to prepare for this day before it ever takes place.
An intuition for innovation
The ability to see the potential of technology and customize it to an organization’s specific needs — this is the role of the innovator. Brock McKeel, Walmart’s senior director of digital operations, stepped into that role when he brought VR training to the world’s largest retailer. McKeel’s interest in VR was sparked by, of all things, football. As he was exploring the potential of new approaches to retail and customer service training, he paid a visit to the football training facility at the University of Arkansas. There, he witnessed college football players participating in highly effective virtual training via headsets, and it was showing real results.
Seeing a scenario where quarterbacks can do repetitions in a safe environment to better prepare them for the game made a light bulb go off. They were getting memorable experiences that prepared them for when things actually happened on the field. I thought this would be a great format for the Academies.Brock McKeel, Senior Director of Digital Operations, Walmart
From there, it didn’t take too much imagination to understand how immersive technology could fit into a large global retail business like Walmart. Before VR, Walmart had conducted training with online and job shadowing programs. McKeel saw a path to a better way for training its 2.2 million associates — a more effective, digital, on-demand VR experience that would place learners directly on the sales floor over and over and over again until they perfected skills big and small — without the need to disrupt business or take extra time away from their day jobs to attend classes.
This was McKeel’s initial hunch, and it has taken off.
The VR project that changed the course of Walmart’s L&D
To start, Walmart partnered with Strivr to bring VR training to the company’s 200 Academies — training facilities located inside select stores across the U.S. to teach employees valuable customer service skills. During the pilot, associates using VR training reported 30% higher employee satisfaction, scored higher on tests 70% of the time, and logged a 10 to 15% higher rate of knowledge retention than before VR.
This pilot was so successful that Walmart decided to expand the program to all of its nearly 4,700 stores nationwide.
Today, Walmart stores across the U.S. have 17,000 Oculus Go VR headsets equipped with Strivr training. Associates will be able to access training on demand, with fewer needing to travel to Academies to take advantage of Immersive Learning opportunities. Nearly 1.4 million Walmart associates will undergo VR training in 2019, including the specialized “holiday rush” modules that simulate the high-stakes, chaotic environment of Black Friday. Associates also receive VR training on how to check out customers using handheld mobile technology before they ever reach a cash register, and how to use and manage customer pickup towers.
The results speak for themselves. Prior to VR, pickup tower launch coaches were conducting day-long training sessions at each new location, comprised of eLearnings, hands-on training, and launch kit training. With VR, pickup tower training time has been reduced from 8 hours to approximately 15 minutes, and it has eliminated the need for launch coaches to travel to store sites.
Elevating the employee experience to transform the customer experience
VR is truly driving the transformation of the associate experience at Walmart. The investment Walmart makes in its employees is felt throughout the company, and has enabled employees to do a better job of serving customers.
“People learn differently,” says one Walmart associate. “Some people are visual learners, and some people can just hear something and react. Other people are more hands on. This gives you all of that.” Another reflects: “Going through the VR and feeling like I’m physically in it and making decisions makes me feel very comfortable about going straight to the sales floor.”
Hands-on training is important for customer service… which is everything.a Walmart associate
Immersive Learning better prepares employees for both their day-to-day roles and rare, high-stakes situations. Most importantly, it provides learners with real-world, situational scenarios to develop critical customer-service skills including empathy, inclusion and diversity.
The investment Walmart makes in employee development is felt throughout the company, and its core value of being in service to the customer is highly enabled by Immersive Learning.
Store-level productivity is strong, due in part to the training we are providing our associates. As the nature of work continues to change, we’re innovating to empower associates to better serve customers as they develop new skills, thriving in their jobs and growing their careers.Doug McMillon, CEO, Walmart