Will customer hosts raise the shopping experience bar at Walmart?

Photo: Walmart
Mar 14, 2019
George Anderson

The news last month that Walmart had decided to eliminate the greeter position at more than 1,000 stores created some controversy for the retailer when it was learned that the change could put older workers and those with disabilities out of jobs. The chain reacted to the pushback with an announcement that it would do its best to accommodate workers, many who had been with Walmart for years, with suitable jobs in other positions in stores.  

The other side to this news was that Walmart will add customer hosts positions at the stores where greeters were being eliminated. The responsibilities of hosts go well beyond what was expected of greeters — cart runs, cleaning up spills and being able to lift items that weigh up to 25 pounds are part of their job description.

Customer hosts will also be positioned right inside a store’s doors to process product returns and issue refunds, including cash to customers. The goal is to eliminate the need for customers to wait in long lines at store service desks by giving hosts the tech they need to handle returns.

Walmart U.S. CEO Greg Foran, who made the announcement at the UBS Global Consumer and Retail Conference on March 6, did not provide a timeline on when Walmart would begin using host to process returns.

The added duties for hosts is part of the retailer’s broader efforts to become a more convenient shopping destination for customers, reports Business Insider. This includes a variety of online ordering store pickup options and the ability for employees to check customers out using mobile devices.  

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Practically speaking, how do you expect Walmart to handle product returns using customer hosts? Do you expect it to be an improvement over customers making returns to service desks?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"If Walmart can execute on simplifying returns, including returns from online sales, it will make its customers very happy."
"It sounds like they are rebranding the greeter position and giving them more responsibility. That works for me. "
"If the host is on a cart roundup, or doing cleanup in aisle seven, is s/he really available to handle customer returns?"

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23 Comments on "Will customer hosts raise the shopping experience bar at Walmart?"

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Art Suriano

In theory, it sounds good. How well Walmart implements and executes the program is what we’ll have to wait and see, but I feel confident they will achieve success. Any improvement to speed up service such as handling returns will be a win for Walmart. The chain has been consistent in doing many things right, and even if the program has some bumps in the beginning, I believe Walmart will make the program successful. As for the workers no longer needed as greeters, it is unfortunate for them, but again I trust Walmart will do what they can to help either find these people a different job they can handle or take care of them in some other manner. Walmart knows that every eye is on them as they continually compete against Amazon and every other retailer and therefore they will do whatever is necessary to make sure they avoid any issue that will lead to customer complaints and negative press.

Charles Dimov

If Walmart does this well, it can be a big boon to their own sales. Being known for an easy and FAST returns process is a reputation every retailer wants. That gives customers more time and a happier state in which to do some additional in-store shopping.

Ideally, I think they will still have a returns desk. Then the host keeps an eye on the line. When there is a queue, they can go to the next person in line to help them process their return quickly. They should be able to do receipt-free returns (an advanced DOM/OMS can do this), to make it all seamless, and easier.

Dr. Stephen Needel

Returning at Walmart is the worst part of the Walmart experience so if they can make it faster, great. But at the expense of older workers? Not so sure.

Jeff Sward

The hosts could add to the shopping experience in very simple and straightforward ways. I liken this to a page out of Home Depot’s playbook. I don’t go to Home Depot to just cruise or browse. I have a mission. I have a problem in search of a solution. I invariably have a question and the host at the front door clarifies the path to the solution immediately. Not quite the same context as a visit to Walmart, but this still sounds like a smart move in elevating the customer experience. Good old fashioned customer service.

Mark Ryski

Any additional assistance shoppers can get for things like product returns will be good for customers. In practical terms, it may not make much difference overall since there’s only so many customer hosts to serve the many thousands of shoppers who visit a Walmart store daily. Taking returns at the front door seems counter-productive – yes, it is easier for customers, however, it may also create a lot of incidental congestion at the entrance. That’s not ideal. Furthermore, by taking returns at the front of the store, you will likely reduce sales that might have occurred had the customers walked through the store to a returns desk. Here’s a crazy idea – how about a really effective, well-staffed and organized returns desk at the back of the store?

Cynthia Holcomb

Great idea! The casual ease of returning a product to a smiling host at the front of the store will no doubt increase return rates. In fact, returns are in the process of creating a whole new business dynamic. Buy, use, return. Just last week, in search of an electronic tool, I was told to buy it, use it and return it. “Everyone does it. It is really easy to return things here”. Retailer beware! A slippery financial slope.

Neil Saunders

This makes a lot of sense. The greeter role was never particularly productive and eliminating it in favor of this new multi-tasking position is sensible. Taking the friction out of making returns is a real benefit. This and the other services provided by the host should increase convenience for the shopper and will help make shopping at Walmart more efficient.

Carol Spieckerman

Walmart is the master of harnessing people power and the new host positions have the potential to fill in multiple store experience gaps. It’s tempting to correlate the move with Walmart’s decision to get rid of greeters. The two positions are apples and oranges, but forums are lighting up with pro-greeter protests nonetheless. The greeter fury will blow over but Walmart would be wise to closely monitor the host positions and ensure that they bring a demonstrable and memorable value to customers shopping in Walmart stores. Walmart needs a win from its latest high-touch transition.

Shep Hyken

It sounds like they are rebranding the greeter position and giving them more responsibility. That works for me. Why not take advantage of the capabilities of smart people who can do more than say, “Welcome to Walmart”? Today’s shoppers, even at the low-price retailers, still want a good level of service. I like the direction Walmart is taking with this. I hope it catches on and works.

Steve Montgomery

It appears that customer hosts are a way for customers to return items in addition to the returns desk. If this is true, this should make the process faster. I say should because the staff at the returns desk handle returns as their primary job. This would make them more efficient in managing returns than a person who has to do this along with other duties.

Another approach would be to add staff to the returns desk. It would have the same impact and does not require the customer to understand the change in their return process.

Paula Rosenblum

As Art said, in theory it sounds great. Customer service desks are a total annoyance. I can recall deciding to stop shopping at Home Depot during the Nardelli era because I wanted to exchange a faulty hose nozzle for a good one ($3 item) and the door guards insisted I had to do it at the customer service desk (which was a mile long).

If Walmart can execute on simplifying returns, including returns from online sales, it will make its customers very happy. Walmart is doing a great job trying to become more relevant and relatable. I hope it works for them.

Ray Riley

In stores of that size, a concierge or host can pay massive dividends for time-poor shoppers to minimize the discovery process.

Dick Seesel

The proof is in the execution. If the host is on a cart roundup, or doing cleanup in aisle seven, is s/he really available to handle customer returns? And is one person really up to the task anyway, given the large volume of website-driven returns that Walmart deals with every day? Let’s see how the plan plays out before declaring it a success or failure.

Ryan Mathews

This makes a good deal of sense — provided of course it works. I’m still not sure why the greeter/customer host is an either/or proposition. Why not keep the iconic greeters and add the convenience factor the hosts represent?

The answer of course is money.

And since this seems to be a strategy based on labor costs, the question becomes how many “hosts” will be in each store; how available will they be; what will the customer interface look like; how do you train employees to deal with irate returners, etc.? In a tight labor market these may prove tough questions to answer.

So while on paper this looks like a better alternative than say service desk returns, the devil — as always — remains firmly at play in the execution.

Richard J. George, Ph.D.

Removing the older and special-needs greeters will not be easily overcome from a PR perspective. However, if the new position of customer host is able to make life easier for Walmart shoppers, then some of the negative press and proposed shopper boycotts may be ameliorated. The noted new tasks – cart runs, spill cleanups, heavy lifting have little potential impact on customers. Making product returns easier is a start. Making checkout easier would be a positive move. Time will tell where the emphasis is placed.

Harley Feldman

If the customer hosts have the tools, handheld scanning devices and access to the Walmart online systems, then they will be able to handle customer returns quickly. This will be better than waiting in lines at customer service. If the tools are not available to the customer hosts, this effort will fail.

Brent Biddulph

I have often been baffled by long lines (and frustrated customers) at Walmart service desks where the majority of the customers standing in line are there with returns.

Given the returns volume Walmart deals with, adding staff (or simply bursting during peak hours) combined with technology to simplify the returns process in-store (simultaneously reducing online return shipping costs) should prove to be an instant winner for both Walmart and customers!

Kevin Merritt

These comments have focused on the added value of improving returns, but we really don’t have a good grasp of how much of their time will be spent on this process vs. greeting, collecting carts, cleaning spills, etc. My focus is more on what this says about the brand. Greeters are pretty rare. Hosts are not as uncommon. The greeters say something about the brand, especially when those folks are disabled or elderly. From a productivity perspective, this is an easy move. After all, greeters don’t sell anything do they? But this move does change the view of the Walmart brand and the customer experience. The results of this single action may be hard to measure. For me, I wonder if this was not a spreadsheet decision or if it really is an indication of Walmart trying to change its image regarding service delivery.

Ken Morris

Returning products at stores, especially Walmart, is a dreaded part of the retail experience. In fact, according to a BRP consumer study, 57% of consumers would choose to shop at a retail store that offered an automated returns process instead of one that doesn’t offer this service.

Using customer hosts to handle returns and refunds sounds like a good idea, as long as everything works smoothly. It is interesting that the hosts will have a cash drawer/bag to offer cash refunds. This poses some potential other risks, including theft/robbery, as these employees with cash will be at the front door. I applaud Walmart’s efforts to improve the unpleasant returns process and hope it works well.

Rich Kizer

I am all in on this strategy of customer hosts in Walmart. I expect that they will be professionally trained to do all they promise they will do. Here is the real upside: Walmart removes greeters, replaces them with hosts, and very importantly insists that all hosts practice the “seven tile rule,” which is, when ever they come within seven tiles (that is seven feet) of a customer, they must greet that customer, ask/answer questions or offer help. That will incredibly impact and create a positive customer centric service environment after the official greeters are gone.

Ed Rosenbaum

This is good and will certainly make a difference in returns; even if they only smile they will make a difference. But I think Walmart should consider taking it a step further. They should have the customer hosts randomly walking the store interacting with the customers, helping find what they need or referring a different item. Make this a true Customer Service position; not just a return specialist with (hopefully) a smile.

Doug Garnett

The idea is great. But it’s sad to see Walmart move away from what appeared to be a smart approach using a greeter position to do things for customers, but also do something good for the community.

It might also improve returns … but only if they’re not too busy. Waited for 15 minutes standing in the middle of an aisle for an Apple rep to finish a transaction the other day. Was quite the dissatisfying experience.

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.

If the consumers are going to have a variety of responsibilities, such as cleaning up spills, processing refunds, or cart runs so that they may not even be in position at the front of the store, why not keep a greeter and at least one consumer host. There may be a need for more than one consumers since there are long lines at customer service for returns at time. Why is there a need to eliminate the greeters?

"If Walmart can execute on simplifying returns, including returns from online sales, it will make its customers very happy."
"It sounds like they are rebranding the greeter position and giving them more responsibility. That works for me. "
"If the host is on a cart roundup, or doing cleanup in aisle seven, is s/he really available to handle customer returns?"

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