Technology gives consumers numerous ways to shop without ever leaving their homes, and now retailers are using those same tools to improve in-store human interaction.
As retail wars to capture the changing consumer escalate, retailers are investing in augmented and virtual reality to enhance customer experience through convenience. And that includes quality customer service for in-store shoppers at Walmart, which uses virtual reality to train its managers and supervisors.
Walmart recently gave the Dayton Daily News a tour of its closest virtual reality training site in West Chester Twp. south of Dayton.
The retail giant has opened 198 training academies since March 2016, requiring every store manager, assistant manager and hourly supervisors to take a training course at one of the academies when hired.
Each one is equipped with a virtual reality system used to train employees on different tasks from how to handle massive crowds on shopping holidays like upcoming Black Friday to an active shooter situation.
“In the world of technology now, this brings in a more real snapshot,” said Carmen Bothast, the West Chester academy manager. “Sitting and talking about it in a classroom is one thing, but being able to connect that piece takes learning to another level.”
Using virtual reality helps an employee experience a situation without having to actually go through it in real life, getting that first-time anxiety out of the way to more calmly address a stressful situation that may arise on the sales floor, said Rachel Hucks, a training center facilitator.
One of the modules puts a participant into a Black Friday situation, with hectic aisles, long lines, lost keys, a child standing in a shopping cart creating and safety hazard and two associates speaking with frustrated customers.
A 360 degree camera positioned above the electronics counter showed the whole scene, with trainees being able to turn and see all angles. It teaches the managers to be more aware of their surroundings and lets them see warning signs of a frustrated shopper and how to handle those situations.
“You can do a lot of teaching moments, so that they’re better prepared when they actually go through that holiday rush,” Bothast said. Those teaching moments aren’t always possible when training on a sales floor, when a leader can’t just stop working to point something out.
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And soon Walmart plans to add virtual reality into every Walmart Supercenter to offer associates a chance to train on a few of the roughly 30 and growing modules, including how to handle an active shooter situation, what to do during a holiday rush and how to use Walmart’s new Pickup Towers.
“I don’t think there’s an end in sight for what we’ll be training for (using virtual reality),” said Walmart Senior Manager Kieth Leardon.
Since the West Chester Walmart Training Academy opened in March 2017, it has graduated thousands of participants from different programs. All managers and supervisors hired at stores in the Dayton and Cincinnati areas, as well as some in Kentucky and Indiana, are required to go through a roughly two-week training program at the academy in West Chester Twp..
Bothast said when she originally went through manager’s training six years ago, it was a six week program, mainly focusing on the classroom. And one of the major complaints Walmart got when employees left the company was that they didn’t feel they were trained well.
But the virtual reality and training academy system has started to decrease turnover and make training more consistent across all stores. It’s also helping to modify strategies as the videos help leadership see what isn’t working on the sales floor.
“The consistency part is the big thing,” Leardon said.”Being tied to a store, they get to go see that and live it. These academy stores are being held to the one best way.”
There are five other training academies in Ohio, including Circleville, Findlay, Marysville, Canton and Streetsboro.
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