Will virtual reality become the ultimate retail training tool?

Discussion
Source: Walmart blog
Jun 05, 2017
Tom Ryan

Walmart has recently started using virtual reality (VR) to train store associates.

According to Walmart’s blog, the idea came from an associate after he saw the technology being used by the University of Arkansas football team during a practice session. The players were testing their skills and reactions in a virtual game in preparation for the real one on the field.

“Imagine you’re a new Walmart store manager and you’ve never experienced a Black Friday,” according to Walmart’s blog revealing the initiative. “Wouldn’t it be helpful to understand the dynamics of such a busy day before you ever had to actually manage your associates and customers through it?”

VR was incorporated into 30 Walmart Academy facilities to train associates on how to handle everyday situations like managing the fresh area, as well as rare events, such as the Black Friday rush. In some cases, a store manager is able to virtually transport to another store and see how they ran things to gain a different perspective.

Walmart wrote, “VR allows associates to experience a lifelike store environment to experiment, learn and handle difficult situations without the need to recreate disruptive incidents or disturb the customers’ shopping experience.”

Associates going through VR training were also found to retain what they’ve learned in those situations better than those who hadn’t. VR training is being rolled out to all 200 Academy facilities by the end of 2017, reaching over 140,000 associates who will graduate each year.

Walmart summed it up, “What’s so great about using VR? Well, it’s really easy to use – as easy as using a smartphone. It creates a passion about learning because we’re trying something new. And associates are better able to retain what they’ve learned.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What do you think of virtual reality as an associate training tool? What do you see as its advantages and disadvantages versus in-store training?

Braintrust
"This is what I admire about Walmart! They are not afraid to borrow a great insight from anywhere and apply it to their business! "
"If it’s good enough to train the military on more complicated issues, it should be good enough for retailers."
"Only real combat experience and situational training (VR or no) can help with the Murphy’s Law side of retail."

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14 Comments on "Will virtual reality become the ultimate retail training tool?"

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Bob Phibbs
BrainTrust

If you were waiting on predictable robots I’d say fine but, quite simply, shoppers aren’t predictable and training as if they were misses the mark. As I’ve written in my primer on retail sales training, continuing to put devices before people does not build interaction skills.

Do you want human-to-human contact in a store? VR is not the answer.

Do you want basically robots who are not trained to look at people’s eyes or build rapport? VR seems perfect.

Ian Percy
BrainTrust

I am schizophrenic on this one. Part of me says, why not? As long as that “virtual reality” actually reflects actual reality. It’s certainly a lot more fun and engaging than looking at old slides and breaking into small groups.

The other side of me thinks of the parallels to writing a business plan. Financial projections, generally, are a virtual reality as well. The best of them are irrelevant the moment one confronts actual reality. If only customers would follow the VR script we’d be golden!

Max Goldberg
BrainTrust

Kudos to Walmart for bringing virtual reality into training programs. Anything that helps sales associates better relate to consumers is welcome. And it’s a fun way for those associates to learn.

Sterling Hawkins
BrainTrust

Agreed. VR is a great addition to retail training programs and certainly a step up from slides. Given the early novelty there’s probably more employee interest in VR as well. I don’t think this is a tool that will replace all training; however, it can be an important and growing part.

Adrian Weidmann
BrainTrust

Anything that promotes learning, training and education is always a good thing. However, it will be a mistake to believe this will make sales associates better at interacting with real shoppers. What is needed is people and communication skills not virtual, situational role playing. Perhaps every employee should go to cotillion or etiquette training?

Brandon Rael
BrainTrust

Virtual Reality, while truly an exciting innovation, does not replace person-to-person training mechanisms. The old but still very relevant concept of learning by doing still applies and VR, despite all the excitement it generates, should be treated as a learning enhancement rather than a replacement of tried-and-true in-person interactions.

Certainly VR will have a place in both the in-store experience and employee training, however the key differentiators for retail brick-and-mortar stores are the highly motivated, engaging, well-trained, knowledgeable customer-obsessed sales associates.

Art Suriano
BrainTrust

To be brief, any method better than the failed “buddy” system is a vast improvement. However, I don’t see VR being much different than the current e-learning that takes place at many stores. There are two issues: The first is the cost, because many retailers do not invest enough in training, starting with limited associate training payroll followed by the weak training materials because of the budget. And the second issue is that in-house trainers are often expected to create all the training themselves and often lack the skill and tools to produce “effective” training.

Walmart in both cases may be the exception, but before other retailers are in a position to invest in VR training, they have to catch up with the basics. I am surprised at how many retailers don’t have an LMS system, provide paper-based and buddy-led training that is not working and offer only a few hours of payroll for associate training. So many improvements are required before most retailers can look at VR training.

Anne Howe
BrainTrust

This is what I admire about Walmart! They are not afraid to borrow a great insight from anywhere and apply it to their business! Kudos!

Ricardo Belmar
BrainTrust

On the surface this seems like a great idea to leverage a new technology to improve associate training — something in general all retailers should be doing to improve their in-store customer experience. After all, those associates are the face of the retailer’s brand. However, it’s not the fact that VR technology is being used that creates the potential for this to be a great thing — it’s all about the content! If Walmart doesn’t deliver the right content for associate training, whether it’s VR or not, it won’t be effective. As we all know, shoppers are not exactly predictable. How a store associate interacts with a customer is just as important if not more so than what they do with a customer. I’m not sure VR alone can help with this point without the right content. At least Walmart continues to show they are serious about investing in associate training and that’s important in and of itself.

Christopher P. Ramey
BrainTrust

VR forces trainees/employees to focus. This alone may make it the ultimate retail training tool.

Lee Peterson
BrainTrust

We designed a store a while back and used VR/3D, etc. When it opened, the CEO was asked, “What do you think? Is this what you expected?” And he said, “It’s EXACTLY what I expected. I’ve been walking through this for months already.”

So to me, if you can train a CEO with VR/3D, you should hopefully have similar great results with new associates. They should know exactly what to expect in terms of the environment they’ll be in even when it’s loaded with people. That is, until someone asks a crazy question or two. Only real combat experience and situational training (VR or no) can help with the Murphy’s Law side of retail. That needs to dovetail with the VR.

Shep Hyken
BrainTrust

Virtual Reality is a great tool, but it is just that. It’s a form of classroom training. It’s a supplement, but not the ultimate/end-all way to train. It’s a great step, but nothing will beat what happens when a new associate goes in front of the customer in real-time and in real-life. That’s when all of the classroom training and VR training gets real. It’s where the rubber hits the road.

Alex Senn
BrainTrust

Perhaps VR has a place in training for retail, but it is not the training of interacting with customers — it should only be the training of processes, which do not require personal interactions with customers.

That being said, I think VR has much wider-spread possibilities for retailers on the consumer end. Imagine as a customer you can enter the Nike store, shop around, pick up items, place them in a cart, and checkout, all without leaving the couch? That’s an experience every retailer will want to deliver if they are to compete in an entirely new realm of retail.

Carlos Arambula
BrainTrust

If it’s good enough to train the military on more complicated issues, it should be good enough for retailers.

If consumers interact with a new sales associate and get a similar level of experience as an experienced sales associate it will pay dividends in satisfaction and retention of consumers and employers.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"This is what I admire about Walmart! They are not afraid to borrow a great insight from anywhere and apply it to their business! "
"If it’s good enough to train the military on more complicated issues, it should be good enough for retailers."
"Only real combat experience and situational training (VR or no) can help with the Murphy’s Law side of retail."

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