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Walmart on the move

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BENTONVILLE, Ark. — Walmart is taking aggressive action on a number of fronts. Earlier this month the giant retailer tweaked its free delivery test program to more directly challenge Amazon.com Inc., filed suit against Visa Inc. over the card issuer’s policies regarding debit card transactions, and announced that it is bringing back greeters to all its stores.

The move on delivery shows how serious Walmart is about boosting its e-commerce business, as part of its strategy of serving its customers no matter how they prefer to shop.

Last year Walmart began testing a membership program called ShippingPass, which offered free three-day shipping to customers who pay $50 a year. ShippingPass was designed to compete with Amazon Prime, a $99-a-year program that offers free two-day shipping on many products, along with other benefits, including free streaming of movies and television shows.

Now Walmart is testing a two-day shipping subscription service that would more directly compete with Amazon Prime. To support the service, Walmart is revamping its delivery network, working with regional carriers to deliver packages, and also leveraging its trucking fleet, its stores and its eight giant e-commerce distribution centers.

“We can offer faster and more affordable shipping because we have a unique fulfillment network that includes new large-scale fulfillment centers, stores, distribution centers and our transportation network,” the company said in a statement.

Walmart has also lowered the price of its ShippingPass membership to $49 a year. The program is still in pilot phase, though, and is available by invitation only.

Walmart’s suit against Visa, meanwhile, is about the way customers verify their debit card purchases at the checkout. Walmart wants customers to enter a personal identification number, or PIN, when making a purchase with a debit card. But the retailer says Visa’s rules mean that customers can choose to verify their transactions with a signature instead.

Walmart argues that Visa’s rules significantly undermine the enhanced security that was supposed to result from the industry’s switch to chip-enabled debit cards.

“PIN verification is significantly more secure and less prone to fraud than signature verification,” Walmart’s lawsuit argues. “Signatures can be forged or copied, and cashiers may forget to check the signature on a receipt or POS terminal to make sure it matches the signature on the back of the card. Cashiers are not trained as handwriting experts, so even if they check the signature there is no guarantee they will spot a forgery.”

Walmart’s suit also notes that signature-based transactions are processed using a different network, and Visa charges Walmart for those transactions.

Walmart’s other move involves the experience shoppers have when they enter and leave the store. The company says it is bringing store greeters back to the front entrance of its stores, and replacing the greeter with a new position — customer host — in some stores.

According to a post on Walmart’s blog, a customer host also greets consumers when they come into the store but may check the receipts of shoppers leaving the store as well. Customer hosts will be deployed in stores where the risk of shrink or other security issues is higher.

“Where our data tells us the risk is higher, we’ll add the new customer host,” the blog post stated. “We expect to fill about 9,000 of these new hourly positions that are specially trained to both welcome customers as soon as they walk in and also help deter would-be shoplifters.”

Walmart tested the new function, and the return of greeters to the front of the store, and the success of the pilot program means that the retailer will roll those changes out of all of its stores by midsummer.

“Greeters are a big part of our company and culture, and that’s why in the majority of our U.S. stores we will continue to rely on them to be the helpful first face customers see,” the blog post stated.

In stores that will get customer hosts, greeters will get the chance to apply for that job or another within the store, the company said.

“Providing customers with an excellent first impression is part of Walmart’s broader strategy to ensure simpler, more convenient shopping,” the company said of the move. “Focusing more on our greeters is one of a whole host of details we’re looking at — it just happens to be a very visible one.”


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