Category Archives: Customer Service

Walmart Boosting E-Commerce Potential

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Walmart’s determination to well-serve its stores’  and customers’ needs in the e-commerce area was boosted a few days ago when the company announced it is adding 2,000 technologists to its existing staff of 6,000 in that area by year’s end.

‘Technologists’ are the Walmart employees who work on the technology powering Walmart stores and the company’s e-commerce businesses, a VentureBeat report noted on June 20.

The new-hire technologists will join Walmart Labs’ offices in San Bruno and Sunnyvale, CA; Bentonville, AR, where Walmart is headquartered; Reston, VA; and Bangalore, India. This role includes data scientists, engineers, and product managers, And NowUKnow explained.

Walmart Labs CTO Jeremy King spoke exclusively with VentureBeat about the division’s hiring plans for the coming year, citing the company’s growing online grocery effort in particular as the reason for Walmart Labs’ expansion. Walmart currently offers customers the ability to order groceries online and pick them up in-store in more than 1,500 of its stores. That count is due to expand to about 2,100 stores by the end of the year, VentureBeat noted.

“Oftentimes we have 50 to 100 items in an order, and we don’t send one picker out to the floor to pick one order and send it back — we’re really optimizing the pickup, and they’re picking somewhere between 5 and 15 orders at a time,” King told VentureBeat in a phone interview. “They’re actually [dealing with] fascinating machine learning problems.”

Walmart’s most formidable competitor in the online grocery pickup space — also known as “click and collect” — is and likely will remain Amazon. That company introduced free, two-hour delivery from Whole Foods stores to Amazon Prime members in certain cities in February. (Amazon acquired Whole Foods in mid-2017.

And while it doesn’t yet offer a click-and-collect option, job listings for pickers in certain cities indicate that it may soon do so.

Danny Silverman, the chief marketing officer at e-commerce analytics firm Clavis, told VentureBeat in a phone interview that the algorithms data scientists at Walmart and Amazon develop to make grocery pickups more efficient will be critical in determining which one gains a better foothold in the space — most click-and-collect services are “are unprofitable to neutral for the retailer, and it’s more about the long-term value of the customer than making money on the [individual] sale.”

“A lot of retailers don’t have real-time inventory management, so it’s very difficult for them to take an online order and then fulfill it successfully — so a big piece of customer satisfaction and winning is going to be on how much they manage their inventory and deliver on [the order],” Silverman added.

Attracting talent to Middle America and the coasts

King also spoke with VentureBeat about the different hiring challenges and advantages Walmart Labs faces with its different offices. Walmart created the Walmart Labs division in 2005, following its acquisition of SiliconValley-based social media analytics company Kosmix, reportedly for more than $300 million.

In Silicon Valley, King acknowledged that tech workers don’t always readily think of Walmart as a technology company. That’s part of the reason why the technology arm is branded as “Walmart Labs.” King said that Walmart Labs often pitches workers on Walmart’s scale.

“Around 140 million people [in the U.S.] walk into a [Walmart] store each week, and getting access to play with that kind of data is intriguing to most people [in the field],” King told VentureBeat.

In Bentonville — where many members of the tech team work on merchandising, supply chain, and point of sale challenges — Walmart Labs faces less challenges from other tech companies for talent. But outside talent is less familiar with what Bentonville — a city of just 48,000 people — is like. The Walmart Family Foundation in recent years has invested in a number of projects to improve cultural and outdoors offerings in Bentonville, such as spending $74 million in developing mountain biking trails around Northwest Arkansas. Walmart is also the sponsor of the Bentonville Film Festival, launched in 2015.

One Family Moved from Philadelphia to Pentonville

Linda Lomelino, currently a senior researcher with Walmart Labs, told VentureBeat that she visited Bentonville twice — once for an on-site interview, and once with her husband and two children — before accepting the job with Walmart Labs and relocating to the area from Philadelphia.

“My husband and I did a lot of research about restaurants and schools and museums and cultural events — and any sort of surrounding experiences that we could have as a family. We also did a lot of research into the demographic profile of Bentonville,” Lomelino told VentureBeat. As of 2017, the city of Bentonville was about 75 percent white, 10.2 percent Asian, 9.2 percent Hispanic or Latino, and 2.7 percent Black, according to Census Bureau data.

King said that Walmart has also tried to create more opportunities for the tech community in Bentonville, hosting Tech Tuesday meet-ups at its office and working with engineering groups and other tech organizations for students at the nearby University of Arkansas.

“I think you’ll see more to come — J.B. Hunt (a major trucking company) and the other [companies] around there are all trying to attract technical talent to the area,” King said.

 

 

 

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Walmart, Amazon Go Head-to-Head on Delivery Services

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Walmart has been working hard, in recent months, to outpace and outdo Amazon as much as the latter has been disrupting many competitors in moving products  — including edible ones – to consumer’ doorsteps.

More and more, Walmart commercials and print ads tout its ‘no membership’ plan for no- or low-cost delivery service to consumers’ doors. The company also is growing its car-side delivery service – where a phoned- or emailed-in order is ready to be picked up at a designated store-side place. A  phone call from one’s car at that place to the store’s delivery department gets the order heading out the door.

Somewhat surprisingly, the delivery folks reportedly don’t mind performing their duties even in ‘off’ weather, according to a couple of them at a Lynchburg VA Walmart. Perhaps they are, justifiably, incentivized by tips.

Both of those services work remarkably well. The to-your-door service works better, perhaps, than Walmart imagined. But then, this is a smart company, and it may have realized a clever opportunity for customers living closest to Neighborhood Markets, the company’s scaled-down store model focused on food and little else: With the company’s entire product catalog available, much beyond what the Neighborhood Markets offer can be home-delivered, at no cost to the consumer. How? By delivering from the nearest full-service Walmart!

That is speculation on our part, but conceptually, it makes sense as a solution to a potentially serious challenge to Walmart.

This program also enables stores to cut inventory (in, say, pet supplies) and still offer a ‘full range’ of, products via the delivery option. In practice, this means that, for example, my local Walmart has been able – possibly coincidentally, possibly because of delivery issues – to leave shelves without some popular cat litters while still offering them through home delivery.

On another front – new patents – Walmart scored some seriously interesting ones recently. And Now U Know, the produce industry newsletter, reported on May 31 that recently approved patents included one for a navigation device for shopping cards, a wearable, tracking device designed to improve    employee productivity (think shelf stockers). And instore inventory trackers that can track when stock needs to be reordered – or shelves need to be restocked. A bit more esoteric is a patent that could  provide instore drone assistance for price verification and in-store navigation.

One or several of these concepts could be implemented in a store near you in the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, Amazon is boosting membership fees for Prime service – which most users value most for its free delivery feature. The company also recently expanded Prime to Whole Foods customers in select areas. More recently still, according to International Business Times, the company expanded Prime offerings to twelve states beyond the original test area around Ft. Lauderdale FL. A company news release said the expansion affects 121 Whole Foods stores in Colorado, Idaho, Arkansas, Louisiana, northern Nevada, northern California, Texas, Utah, and Kansas – as well as the Missouri side of Kansas City.

The company says Prime discounts also are now in place at Whole Foods’ Market 365 stores around the country. That Whole Foods sub-brand was launched in 2015, IBT noted.

 

Lidl Alters Stock, Prices In Danville VA Store

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The Lidl store in Danville, Virginia has been open a couple of months. It’s already made some (much needed) shifts in its product offerings. And, though staff on hand on a recent Wednesday afternoon reported business has been “good,” it was pretty slow on our second visit.

That, for the company, is the bad news. The good news is how ably they work with consumers wanting to return something – often a hassle ao competitors’ stores. On our first visit, we’d bought a device to catch and kill houseflies. It didn’t work. Despite the fact it was many weeks before we could get back to the store (it’s nearly an hour’s drive away), the return process – done at the checkout, not a consumer service counter – went smoothly… once a manager was located: That took a couple of minutes.

A bit later, at the conclusion of the same visit, we realized that a bottle of wine we’d purchased was not the one we wanted – a less than one-third the price of the one we walked out with. I immediately walked it back into the store, spotted the same manager on the floor, and he OK’d a return even though, he said, Virginia law bans the return of wine. (Since we’d only bought it moments before, and had the receipt, he reckoned the law could be ‘waived’ (read ‘overlooked’.) We returned to one of the checkouts – only three were open on this slow afternoon – and were promptly issued a store ‘gift’ card.

Back in the chilled foods section along the right wall, it was clear that someone has paid attention to the fact that people on Virginia’s Southside don’t have much interest in Indian food, as the choices in the heat-and-serve section have been trimmed (to one!) and other, similar meals have been culled, as well.

The bakery’s offerings are more numerous, and samples are more in evidence – with a lighted sign rotating through the day’s offerings.

But one of the greatest changes – hardly unexpected for a new, price-oriented store – has been the push to drop prices – an effort evident in most every department. One dramatic example: whole “young” chickens were offered at $.69 (69 cents) per pound, down from $.99 – the price of comparable birds at Food Lion, along with Walmart, a chief competitor in Danville.

(The town – a small city, actually – used to have two Piggly Wigglys and a Harris Teeter. One of the former was replaced by a Walmart; The latter simply pulled out of the market. There’s one Save-A-Lot, a limited assortment discount store. It’s so NEVER busy, you wonder why it’s still in business.)

Lidl needs to do, in this and other locations, product shifts to reflect the fact locals aren’t interested in “Cheese [or anything else] from Europe”. Most of their new US stores are in small, often rural, unsophisticated communities. The natives there don’t know (or care) about brie or other ‘specialty’ cheeses, or foods from foreign lands. But they do go for Lidls’ bakery goods, many of which – such as fresh bagels, croissants and similar pastries – are all but unknown beyond the products offered in the bake-it-yourself section of the dairy aisle.

Some reports have said Lidl isn’t doing the business it expected to in its launch stores. But as someone pointed out, the privately (German-) owned company has deep pockets, and is committed to a long term success in the US. There is every reason to put faith in that – and the fact that both Lidl and Aldi, it’s German-based cousin, which also is growing its US store count, will continue to disrupt the US grocery-selling scene for years to come.

Instore Robots Are H-E-R-E!

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Marty the robot is being tested at Giant Food Stores on Union Deposit Road in Lower Paxton Township, Pennsylvania.  (Photo: PenLive.com)

An increasing number of food retailers are using, or planning to use, instore robots – not to replace existing workers, but to do some of their tasks more efficiently. In the end, the theory is, everyone benefits: The retailer can keep a better handle of out-of-stocks at the shelf level, be quickly notified of spills and other issues requiring special attention from a worker, and check prices from shelf labels, to ensure prices posted and those in the front-end system are in sync; Employees get help keeping track of where stock is needed; Customers are more likely to find shelves fully stocked (or being restocked, as they shop), enjoy a safer shopping environment as spills, etc. are dealt with quicker, and, as a bonus, get to watch a so-far-unusual piece of technology work their favorite store’s aisles.

AndNowYouKnow, the produce blog/newsletter, reported a few days ago on a pilot robot-using program in a Giant Food Store in eastern Pennsylvania. This Ahold USA store is running the pilot in association with Badger Technologies. They intend to have the robot, called Marty, up and working in 12 stores by sometime next year.

The ANUK also noted that other retailers considering or already employing robots include Walmart, Amazon, and Target. A Digital Trends story in September of last year noted that Walmart is planning to shift some workers to other roles and let some 7,000 go as robotic or newly-automated systems are introduced for ‘back room’ operations such as billing and accounting. The Wall Street Journal noted that one objective of the new hands-off processing of invoices and cash, among other things, is “to put more staff in contact with shoppers.”

CNBC, in a report primarily about Amazon’s growing home delivery services, noted that Walmart also has announced a deal with smart doorbell maker August to provide customers an in-home delivery service: It will enable Amazon delivery personnel to have one-time access to home so they can deliver and put away, where appropriate (as with frozen or refrigerated items), at least part of an order.

Services such as these, plus driver-less trucks, are going to play increasingly important roles in stores and households of the surprisingly near future.

Watch this space.

Wegmans Feeds 1,000 C’ville Protests First Responders

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Wegmans on Dick Rd. in Cheektowaga. Photo taken, Tuesday, April 1, 2014. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

More than 1.000 first responders dealing with the unrest in Charlottesville VA last weekend faced angry protesters – some there to oppose the city’s plan to remove from a public part a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee from a public park, others out to protesters that group – from Friday night through Sunday. Thanks to Wegman’s, the New York State-based supermarket chain presently expanding into states far further south, they didn’t do so on empty stomachs.

A car of the first responders visited a Wegman’s a couple of miles from the heart of the protest area, abutting the campus of the University of Virginia, seeking a couple of pizzas and some drinks. They got way more, when store managers and workers set aside normal tasks to go all out preparing and packing hot food, beverages and more for the first responders – and initially refused to take any money for it. (Then, the first responders said they insisted on paying, and the store reluctantly gave in.)

A Facebook posting by Metro Richmond Fire Incidents, which sent crews to Charlottesville for the event, said that “store managers halted their daily work and ‘dedicated themselves and other staff to cooking for us. They fired up all their ovens, called in extra bakers and even emptied their freezers to cook boxed pizza for us when they ran out of dough.”
The night manager stayed till 1 a.m. to oversee the effort to feed more than 1,000 police officers and National Guard members, “amid absolute chaos and with no advanced notice,” according to the Facebook post. The deed culminated Sunday morning with 500 Virginia State Police troopers “walking into their location, bereft with grief, yet so thankful to see a 20-foot long counter lined with breakfast.”

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Jo Natale, a spokesperson for Wegmans, confirmed the actions of employees confirmed the actions of employees and declined to comment further to Wegman’s hometown newspaper, the Rochester Democrat a& Chronicle, stating that the Facebook post “speaks for itself.”

Since it was initially put online, the post by the Metro Richmond Fire Incidents page was shared more than 4,000 times with more than 4,300 reactions and 300+ comments, it was reported by WHAM-TV of Rochester NY.

Delivery Services, Smaller Stores, Point to Future of Food Retailing in America

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Grocery retailers who’d like to get into the home delivery game, a business so far dominated by such big players as Amazon, Instacart, Jet, Peapod and the like, are being offered an opportunity to “play” – in a very serious way – by Deliv, a crowd sourced startup that earlier this year got a $28 million cash infusion from UPS, undoubtedly the most experienced last-mile (from wherever to the customer’s door) delivery service in the US. Just-launched Deliv Fresh claims it can “offer same-day delivery from {retailers’] own branded sites,” according to an article in DC Velocity, which describes itself as “the market leading multi-media magazine brand serving the specific informational needs of logistics and supply chain managers and executives.”

Deliv says that while Amazon Prime “takes ownership of the customer transaction,” moving products from its own or partners’ warehouses direct to customers, the Deliv service “provides same-day service to grocers, meal services, and other perishable e-commerce providers such as FoodKick by FreshDirect, GetFedNYC, GreenBlender, Plated, BloomThat, The Cheese Store of Silverlake, Plum Market, and Eataly Chicago.” The company currently operates its core service in 18 markets and more than 100 cities, providing same-day, last mile delivery services for retailers and businesses including Macy’s, Best Buy, Kohl’s, and PetSmart.

Smart: They’re starting with a broad range of retailers, in a limited number or markets, testing the market, as it were, and preparing to roll out its service as and when appropriate.

The grocery retailing business is undergoing seismic changes these days, and will continue to do so as the likes of Aldi and upstart Lytl – like Aldi, a huge success as low-price-leader food stores in Europe – gain ground in the US. (Aldi’s been here for a long time, but has, for the most part, flown under the radar, since stores are, in a sense, struggling to get their low-price message out into their various communities.)

A surprisingly long article in the May 16 New York Times went well beyond reviewing a new book on the state of supermarket retailing (“Grocery – The Buying and Selling of Food in America”). The paper’s reporter went with book author Michael Ruhlman on a tour of a ShopRite store in New Jersey, getting an up-close-and-personal education on some of what’s happening in supermarkets today and, as or more important, what’s likely to happen in coming years.

One interesting point was that grocery deliveries will help influence an emerging trend – of stores getting smaller, and going back to being more customer-centric and less packed out with packaged goods of the type people are increasingly buying less of.

This is a topic you will see discussed more and more often on this blog. We also will talk more about what Aldi and Lydl are all about, and how they are likely to be big players – in way smaller stores than today’s typical ones – in the reshaping of American food retailing.

Watch this space.

A Review: Mobile AL Restaurant Demos Customer Service As It Should Be

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Sadly, this is not a trend: A restaurant where team members actually work as a team, sharing responsibilities for getting dishes to tables, making customers feel important, helping, quietly, without seeming to do anything out of the ordinary, to see tables are promptly cleared and that, overall, the ebb and flow of a meal period flows without incident; with customers none the wiser that they are enjoying an unusually superb example of what good customer service is supposed to be about.

We witnessed that on Friday, March 10, at Felix’s Fish Camp, an outstanding seafood-dispensing establishment in Mobile AL. Having driven there from New Orleans, a couple of hours and a bit away, we arrived somewhat later than planned. We were promised we’d be seated in five minutes. It took less than four for our ‘caller device’ to vibrate, and our adventure was underway.

Courtney seated us, at close to 1 pm., at a table with clear views from both seats (I had to turn a bit to take in the totality of the view over the Gulf of Mexico shallows, with shore birds busily securing feasts of their own; My wife with had the entire panorama laid out before her.) If you’re fortunate, you might also see alligators moving about or nesting in the shore side reeds and grasses.

Drinks were ordered (a glass of pino grigio for me, a ‘fancy’, foamy concoction for her) , then orders were taken – a cup of crab soup for me, followed by the been-waiting-all-week-for boiled jumbo Gulf shrimp; a taco specialty for her.

Already, I was looking around, observing, having been attracted by a parade of servers heading for a table just beyond us. Fully coordinated, smooth as you’d wish, food-to-table service. I watched this display of in-snych service several times, as a silent row of servers slid between tables toward their destination then, as quietly and unobtrusively, slip away.

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I happened to be facing the dining room entrance, and was intrigued to note a staging area set up just beyond that entrance way. Orders were delivered from the kitchen to a large table there, to be dispensed to servers close to their stations, and well away from the kitchen itself, where their presence, as is often the case in commercial kitchens, is something to be endured by cooks and their assistants, but only grudgingly tolerated. The staging station eliminates that issue, helping back-of-the-house operations run smoother, with fewer distractions.

The staging station also enables the multi-server food-to-table operation so successfully employed by Felix’s. This system also reduces the apparent to-ing-and-fro-ing of wait staff, trimming – both apparently and in fact – traffic in the dining room, and enhancing, in the process, clients’ dining experience.

This was, you’ll recall, a Friday afternoon in early March – a March when, in fact, spring sprung early, and the leaves were out and the temps were up (into the upper ’60’s). Still, it was a weekday.

When a restaurant, even one so ideally positioned as this one, with a local reputation beyond repute, keeps turning lunch-period tables well beyond 2 pm, maintaining a near-full dining room at a time when most competitors’ kitchen staff are on break and the wait staff count is shrinking, you know the place is doing something right.

Peeling and consuming fresh-boiled shrimp is a messy business. By the time I (willingly) fought my way to the end of my very generous portion, my large cloth napkin was a mess, as were my hands. Two soapy hand-washes later, I’d largely dealt with the messy hands issue. Meanwhile, Courtney had dealt with the messy napkin one by providing, where my shrimp-shell bowl so recently sat, a fresh one.

But though we had to decline dessert, Felix’s wasn’t through with us.

While our arrival hadn’t been at a terribly busy time, there was a more or less steady flow of people presenting to the hostess station. I’m guessing she dealt with no fewer than 50 people between the time we entered and the time we departed. Yet, somehow, she was able to greet my wife by name as we did so! A crowning touch on a royal experience.

The restaurant’s website gives no indication of how long Felix’s Fish Camp has been in business. It’s undoubtedly been in place for many decades. But it doesn’t take those factors for granted, nor does in treat lightly the fact that its generations-spanning clientele was (and still is being) acquired one customer at a time.

The reviews on the website say it all – or almost all: To them, though, I add: Despite living nearly 800 miles from Mobile and Felix’s, I’d seriously consider taking a Thursday-to-Tuesday break to twice endure a long road trip just to enjoy the food and the atmosphere there.