Walmart seeks online edge with 35-second returns

Discussion
Photo: Walmart
Oct 10, 2017
George Anderson

If Walmart is loved for anything it is low prices. But the retailer has been also making a clear push to get some love for making the lives of its customers more convenient, as well. Along that line, the retail giant has announced a new, easier and faster system that it claims will reinvent the return process at retail. 

Beginning next month, customers who place orders online will be able to use Walmart’s mobile app to process returns, the company claims, in 35 seconds or less. Customers bring unwanted items to any Walmart store and scan a barcode with their phone. They then drop the items off with an associate at the store’s express lane or customer service desk. Walmart plans to offer a similar service for items bought in its stores next year. 

In December, Walmart will be following Amazon.com’s lead by issuing refunds for some lower priced damaged products without requiring they be returned. Here too, shoppers scan the item with their phone and instantly receive a refund. 

As of now, Walmart is only covering items it sells directly as part of its return process, although it says it is working on a system to do the same for products sold by third-parties on its marketplace. 

“We know that returning an item and waiting for a refund, especially for a product purchased online, isn’t always seamless, so we’ve completely transformed the process for our customers — whether they are shopping in stores or at Walmart.com,” said Daniel Eckert, senior vice president, Walmart services and digital acceleration, Walmart U.S., in a statement.  

“By leveraging our physical stores and the Walmart app, we’re changing the returns game in ways that only Walmart can do,” added Mr. Eckert. “Throughout the year, we’ve added features to our app to make it an even more powerful, time-saving tool for our customers shopping online and in our stores; Mobile Express Returns is our latest enhancement.” 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Does an easier return policy correlate to more sales for retailers? Will the launch of easier online returns along with other steps Walmart has made to make shopping more convenient  Pickup Towers, home delivery, etc.  be rewarded with more purchases by consumers?

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25 Comments on "Walmart seeks online edge with 35-second returns"

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Art Suriano
BrainTrust

Walmart continues to do many things right, and this is another excellent move in that direction. Customers are always interested in convenience, and this is a high time-saving process that I feel customers will respond to favorably. Over the last several months Walmart has introduced many new programs, and each of them seems to work well. I see this as another win for Walmart, and no doubt will make their customers very happy letting them choose Walmart as the place they’ll want to shop whether it be online or in-store.

Charles Dimov
BrainTrust

Totally agree, Art. Going after enhancing the returns process is brilliant. This is a great example of using their omnichannel capabilities and physical store footprint, and of using a non price-based means of competing effectively. Brilliant!

Dr. Stephen Needel
BrainTrust

If it avoids return problems, then it will improve sales down the line. Returns can be a major source of customer dissatisfaction and Walmart’s in-store return lines can approach the ridiculous.

Mark Ryski
BrainTrust

Easier returns programs can become a source of competitive differentiation and, to that extent, can contribute to sales improvements. Anything that makes it easier and more convenient for customers to buy, including returns processes, is helpful. However, while these programs are helpful, I’m not sure their impact will translate directly into a meaningful sales lift.

Ben Ball
BrainTrust

The oft forgotten second clause of Sam Walton’s credo of saving middle Americans money was ” … to make their lives better” (paraphrased). Walmart seems to be focusing more on that important second part of the “why” behind lower prices these days. This is a great example, in the spirit of L.L. Bean’s no-questions-asked returns policy. The legend will do a lot more good than the actual behavior.

Shep Hyken
BrainTrust

Easy returns aren’t just good for the customer. They are also good for the company. It proves to the customer that the company is customer-focused. It’s also good marketing. The company with a positive reputation for easy returns can tip the competitive scale.

Max Goldberg
BrainTrust

One thing we all have a finite amount of is time. Consumers want convenience that saves them time. This move by Walmart addresses their biggest consumer complaint, while separating it from competitors like Target. Kudos to Walmart management for taking numerous steps to save time. I expect consumers will handsomely reward these efforts.

Chris Petersen, PhD.
BrainTrust

If it really works as proposed, Walmart has a competitive advantage and huge differentiator. While Amazon make the returns process simple, you still have to make a trip and pay to ship the item back (or go to Kohl’s). The Walmart app with returns is a game changer. The Walmart returns feature is enough of a tipping point to get customers to download another app and give Walmart another window to gaining customers online and into their ecosystem.

Today’s omnichannel consumers are searching for choice, convenience and seamlessness across the process, including returns when necessary.

Lee Kent
BrainTrust

This sounds very exciting and convenient for the customer however, I can’t help but ask the question — will it help relieve the significant losses attributed to returns? This process will likely encourage the consumer to buy more with the option to easily return what they don’t want and that only drives up costs and losses to the retailer. No doubt Walmart has thought about that so let’s just see how it works out. For my 2 cents.

Shawn Harris
BrainTrust

This makes complete sense. All shoppers want is for retail to get out of their way. Return policy is the third consideration behind price and fulfillment options. However all three are equally critical to conversion. Walmart’s continued focus on convenience, assortment and price is a winning strategy.

Warren Thayer
BrainTrust

Of course shoppers are going to like this. For them, what’s not to like? But this could turn out to be another penalty for vendors doing business with Walmart. Walmart is already tacking on many new fees and fines, and it may be that this new process will be more generous to shoppers than what has existed in the past. Someone will have to pay for that, somewhere. If vendors find it even less attractive to do business with Walmart (and based on conversations I have with vendors, they are not feeling much love for Walmart now), they will react. They could choose from many possible reactions. This will stir the pot even more, sometimes in unexpected ways. It’s a challenging time for retail.

Paula Rosenblum
BrainTrust

What remains unclear is the process through which the return must be confirmed by a store associate. If this is not straightforward and clean, it’ll be a shrink magnet.

Dave Bruno
BrainTrust

A brilliant move by Walmart. Removing friction from the returns process — from any part of the shopping journey, really — can only help improve the experience and engender trust. Both of which are critical elements of the conversion formula. Next up, we will see how well Walmart manages the reverse logistics process once the items start piling up!

Charles Dimov
BrainTrust

Wow — 35 second returns. This is big. Customers think about return policies when making online purchase decisions. So Walmart is preparing for the holiday season well. This is a smart move, making a commitment with fast returns. With receipt-free returns for example, the customer spends less time in line returning, with more time to roam and pick up another item or two. In fact, 66 percent of customers will make another purchase in-store when bringing a returned item back. Make the returns process fast, friendly and efficient … and this number might even go up. Good job Walmart!

Adrian Weidmann
BrainTrust

The successful implementation of the 35-second return will certainly bring further value and delight to the Walmart shopper. It will be interesting to see how Walmart will deal with fraud and folks trying to scam the system on this latest promise. More importantly, will this program and its promise be sustainable in light of the few that will try to beat the system?

Steve Montgomery
BrainTrust

Buying is fun. Making returns it not. One of the hassles has always been the time it took.

A recent RetailWire story discussed the ability to return Amazon purchases at Kohl’s. One of the points made was the impact of standing in a line at the customer service counter for people who were not used to having to do so.

Walmart’s 35-second process has at least reduced the actual process time. It will be interesting to see if the total time it takes getting to the front of the line overshadows the 35 seconds once you get there.

Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

This is another smart move by Walmart which, increment by increment, is upping its game in online and digital. We know returns are a pain point for consumers and this type of service will help remove some of the challenges. Alone it won’t move the dial for Walmart in a major way, but as part of its wider initiatives in digital, it is extremely helpful.

Robert DiPietro
BrainTrust

This will be a win for Walmart! It hits on several different points — an easier path for consumers regarding returns, an extra trip to the store so customers will potentially buy something else and reduced labor in-store. Also it’s a new angle for the marketing team. I might have to buy something just to return it and try it out myself!

Ricardo Belmar
BrainTrust

Walmart is really standing out lately as a retailer doing something every other retailer should — paying attention to the overall experience and removing friction everywhere possible to make the experience better!

Returns are no doubt a major source of friction for shoppers and Walmart’s new app-driven approach, if executed well in-store, will go a long way to alleviate a pain point. Additionally, it may drive more adopters of the Walmart app, where they have been driving much of their innovation lately. The more shoppers Walmart brings into their app ecosystem, the increased likelihood of those shoppers adopting Walmart Pay, shopping via mobile and online and making more purchases in the long term. This will further weave a digital story for Walmart and may even encourage more digital native shoppers to favor the brand.

Sterling Hawkins
BrainTrust

Walmart continues to make the right moves! Not only are they testing and rolling out new innovations, they’re getting better at playing the PR & news cycles. This latest announcement of 35 second returns is another step in the right direction of removing friction in the customer experience. It’s also another step in redefining the Walmart image from, not just being low price, but being tech savvy and experience conscious as well.

Cynthia Holcomb
BrainTrust

If this is true and works in real life then yes, more sales for Walmart!

Two caveats: 1.) Walmart needs diversity in their product assortments beyond just being cheap. 2.) At Walmart, returns are the “defacto” customer experience.

Nice spin on the customer experience. Shop online. Buy. Return. Repeat.

Min-Jee Hwang
BrainTrust

Walmart is working hard to gain a competitive advantage over Amazon, and this is a prime example of that. Being able to buy online and return in-store helps shoppers check out with more peace of mind. Making that return process seamless was the next logical step.

Also, getting shoppers back in-store for returns opens the door to additional purchases. Boosting customer experience with an efficient return policy will make those add-on purchases much more likely. Instead of a return taking several minutes, a shopper can complete their return quickly, then buy a few items in the time it used to take to just return the original item.

Ken Morris
BrainTrust
Product returns and exchanges are an ongoing challenge for e-commerce retailers and a frustration for consumers. Amazon has continued to refine the return process with free shipping on returns and in some cases pre-printed return labels. However, consumers still need to take a trip to a UPS location to drop off the returned package. With extensive store coverage within 10 miles of 90% of the U.S. population, Walmart is not only leveraging stores as distribution centers, but now for returns as well. They are also raising the bar on speed and convenience. Walmart’s return process has a reputation for being slow and frustrating. Mobile Express Returns, which allows some products to be refunded without being physically returned, is a creative process for convenience. If the Mobile Express Returns app works as promised and is intuitive, Walmart will delight customers and help improve customer loyalty. It will also reduce frustration with sales associates and allow them to spend more time helping customers or other tasks that are more enjoyable than dealing with unhappy customers. This could… Read more »
Paul Donovan
BrainTrust

Walmart will have to plan on making sure the associates helping with rollout of this program are well staffed and trained. It could conceivably take away from in-store checkout service levels, thus negating the goal. I didn’t hear any mention of incremental staff for returns processing.

Sarat Burle
Guest
Easy returns have always been the “necessary trouble” for retailers in their journey for improved customer convenience. With increasing online purchases by customers, the impact of a cumbersome return process is very high on the experience. In this context, Walmart’s efforts to simplify this return process is quite laudable. However, I will have to hold off on the celebrations (as a consumer) because of the following challenges: 1. Staffing: Processing an online return at the counter does not take much time. It is the waiting in the line. So, more than the app functionality, I feel adding a “Mobile Express Lane” is useful. However, the success of this depends on how they staff these lanes (note that the item still has to be handed over to the associate). In a recent trip to Walmart, when I was standing in the returns line with 3 customers in front of me, 4 behind me, there was only one associate at the desk, and there was not even an attempt to call for another associate to man the… Read more »
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