Ad:Tech: Walmart's Customer Experience Upgrade

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Wal-Mart backs Web tracking
Wal-Mart backs Web tracking

When Sara Ortloff Khoury was tasked with revamping Walmart.com, she soon realized that the job was much larger than she initially anticipated. As VP of user experience, insights, and analytics at Walmart's global e-commerce division, Khoury initially sought to figure out what shopping on Walmart.com might be like in 2016, and to prepare the online user experience for that eventuality.

But as Khoury began researching Walmart customers, she realized this was the wrong thing to ask. “We needed to change the product statement because everything we found pointed us to a broader question,” Khoury said during her keynote at Ad:Tech San Francisco. “What would it be like to shop Walmart, not just Walmart.com?”

Khoury was already keenly aware that retailers had entered into what Forrester Research calls The Age of the Customer, in which the focus on the customer is the most important strategic imperative. And Walmart, with 10,500 stores and 200 million customers a week, had a lot to focus on.

In fact, Khoury has noticed a shift in her job expectations as customers have become more empowered and continue to exert more control over the buying experience. Whereas her priorities around user experience design used to focus on usability and providing positive experiences, now she must ask: Is the experience unique?

“It's not good enough to have a usable or good experience anymore,” she said. “You have to be differentiated to capture customers in the long run.”

But designing a unified Walmart experience—one that accounts for in-store, e-commerce, and mobile activity—took a tremendous amount of planning. Khoury broke it down into three higher-level steps: Delineate the plan, think both freely and critically about the plan, and communicate it effectively to the various stakeholders in the enterprise.

“Tried-and-true processes and workflows for executing creative in advertising aren't applicable to an effort like this,” Khoury said. “You have to work differently. You have to be more persuasive and creative in how you communicate your solutions.”

The issue that Khoury had initially is that she didn't feel comfortable diving immediately into altering the Walmart.com user experience—she wanted to conduct more research and figure out how to communicate her plans to the interested parties within the Walmart organization. Unfortunately, those parties wanted to see deliverables quickly.

“You have to have the discipline and relationship with your stakeholders, and be transparent about your decision making and your problems, before you can begin solving that problem,” Khoury said. She identified three audiences within the Walmart organization she needed to convince to take a more considered approach.

First, Walmart corporate wanted to see a change in the Walmart.com experience, so Khoury developed a strategic framework that would align the effort and guide the project.

The second group she identified was the in-store sales team and associates. Khoury created a video that essentially served as a rallying point, something that would demonstrate the vision of a transformed Walmart organization.

The final audience Khoury identified were the product and development teams in Walmart global e-commerce. For this group, she described the various Walmart.com customer journeys and laid out the various disruptive influences that was affect those journeys, all to help the team plan for future developments.

With these groups identified, Khoury conducted further research, including an in-depth look at shopping pain points, customer behaviors, and the technologies that would be available to Walmart.

Her customer research confirmed the importance of mobile. Khoury found that 44% of customers look up product information while in a store, 37% compare physical store prices with online store prices, and 12% use smartphones to research purchases at least weekly.

She also found that Walmart was the retailer with the most in-store check-ins, meaning that mobile already played a tremendous role among customers. It was at this point she realized that the revamp would have to transcend Walmart.com's desktop e-commerce site and touch the entire end-to-end customer journey.

“You can't take challenges on at face value when you're doing vision work,” Khoury said. “This project taught me that the quality of the challenge you choose to solve will determine the outcome.”

To justify changing the scope of the project, she asked Walmart brass a simple question: Over the next five years, would they rather see 3% online sales growth at Walmart.com or 77% growth of all online-influenced sales?

With the project's expanded ambitions approved, Khoury began looking at ways to unify the Walmart shopping experience.

“You have to look inside and outside of your organization,” she said. “That's how you surface your unique differentiators.” This meant figuring out what online products could help customers save time and money. It meant taking into account how in-store associates already used technologies, and looking at mobile apps that could make the store shopping experience more relevant and localized.

One innovation was the idea of treating stores as distribution centers for its online sales, which would immediately grow the reach of Walmart's e-commerce business.

“Don't make the mistake of working with creatives and or user experience people alone,” Khoury said. “You need to talk to all the stakeholders to get into the heart of the most innovative ideas.”

She spoke with 20 groups within Walmart to get their take on both the online and in-store shopping experience; those groups, to name a few, included merchandising, product management, mobile, and WalmartLabs. Khoury asked each group to envision a seamless shopping experience, one without cross-channel friction.

Khoury and her team inventoried the thousands of ideas onto a spreadsheet and organized them based on differentiating features and services. She and her team then evaluated which features could be implemented soon and which would take longer to develop. Based on their conclusions, the team produced a road map and synthesized the company's mission into a concise mission statement: “Walmart My Way: Saving money is easy anytime, anywhere.”

Khoury was cagey about sharing specific ideas on Walmart's customer experience update. However, she noted that certain projects originated from ideas generated during the planning process. For instance, the company is piloting same-day delivery service, which came from the idea of using Walmart stores as distribution centers.

The company also added a feature to its branded app, which has an “in-store” mode that essentially geo-fences a Walmart location and lets users brows the actual in-store inventory.

Ultimately, Khoury's ongoing project to redesign and optimize the Walmart customer experience is a product of both hard data and intuition. “That's the most valuable skill we possess,” Khoury said of the latter, “because we've never lived in a more rapidly changing marketplace. We must be nimble and flexible and know when to pivot. I use data in all of my work, but I trust my intuition in telling me what to do.”

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