Walmart plans to allow shoppers to return previously-purchased items at the front of its stores to make the process more convenient, according to a transcript of comments made by Walmart U.S. President and CEO Greg Foran at this week's UBS Global Consumer and Retail Conference.
"You're soon going to be able to do a refund right at the front door of the Walmart store," he said, according to the transcript, adding that customers will not have to visit a customer service desk inside, but can interact instead with a "customer host."
Foran also said Walmart is making progress with several technology innovations, including its Bossa Nova robot, which scans shelves to monitor inventory and contribute data to the replenishment process. "We're starting to get that operating to a point where we can start to make much better decisions," he said of Bossa Nova.
The news of this customer service shift came from one comment in a wide ranging discussion, and Foran did not specify when or in how many locations the front-of-the-store return service would become available. But it does cast a bit more light on Walmart's controversial decision to transition its store greeter positions into those of customer hosts with more duties and different job requirements.
It sounds as if those customer hosts will be directly involved in the new approach to returns and refunds. Product returns have become an increasingly costly and difficult problem for retailers in recent years, especially as e-commerce has grown. It has become a fact of retail life, and Walmart may be looking to at least manage it more effectively.
This evolution comes about a year and a half after Walmart launched a Mobile Express returns service that allows customers to initiate their own returns via the Walmart mobile app before they arrive at the store. That also gives them a dedicated return line and an expedited process once they are at the customer service desk. It's not clear whether the new process described by Foran would replace Mobile Express, or perhaps just supplement it.
The UBS conference discussion touched on everything from Foran's frequent store visits to employee wage practices for different regions of the U.S. Speed emerged as an overarching need when discussing operations and processes, whether the topic was purchase returns, the shelf-scanning Bossa Nova robot or the FAST unloading process for getting inventory delivered, scanned and onto shelves more quickly.
"[T]he unvarnished truth is that we had not even got close to arriving and I don't make that statement based on the fact that I am obsessed about we've got to do more, we've got to go faster," he said of store execution. "For sure we're doing better, but our peers are still a long way ahead of us ... There are lots more opportunity to take this business a lot better and with a bunch of extra space whether it's in stock or inventory or associate service, quality of fresh, quality of private brands and I'm excited about that opportunity."
An expedited return and refund process would be just one way to move faster.