LAKE NONA — With all the doom and gloom about the state of the retail industry, it isn't easy to find a company other than Amazon that is considered a bright spot among the ongoing narrative of declining sales and shuttered stores.
But Walmart is proving it will not go gentle into that good night.
Walmart was once the behemoth of the shopping world, until Amazon morphed from being a book retailer into an everything retailer. Today, Arkansas-based Walmart is still among the biggest brick-and-mortar retailers out there with 4,692 stores in 50 states. But Walmart is also investing heavily in ecommerce business these days — it bought both Jet.com and Modcloth.com in the last year — to better compete against Amazon and others.
Walmart continues invest in its growth online by expanding its own third-party marketplace (similar to Amazon Marketplace) and piloting more convenience options for shoppers, like free two-day shipping, pick-up in store options and curbside grocery pick up and delivery programs. It also announced partnerships with Uber and Google this week. The company made headlines in June when it launched its first "vending machine," which is essentially a giant self-serve kiosk, at a store in Oklahoma. One of these futuristic vending machines opened in Naples last week. Walmart also opened a "Next-Gen Test Store" earlier this year in Lake Nona, an affluent and growing suburb of Orlando.
After learning more from Walmart's director of corporate communications, Phillip Keene, I decided to take a road trip to check out this new "store of the future" for myself.
"The conversation we're having now, is how do we use these stores to our advantage?" Keene said during an interview with the Times. "That's how we came up with online grocery programs, mobile check-out lines and expanding the services on our app."
Upon first glance, the Walmart Supercenter in Lake Nona is unlike any other Walmart I've seen before. Walmart is universally known for a few things: low prices, giant stores and generally, not great customer service. That's part of the trade off — you go to Walmart to buy something for the cheapest price knowing that the in-store experience likely isn't going to be great.
Well, that's not the case in Lake Nona.
There were more employees staffed in that Lake Nona supercenter than any other Walmart I've ever been in. I was approached by a half-dozen cheery associates who were eager to help me find what I needed. The store layout is different than the usual supercenter. It's brighter, wider and cleaner. The health and beauty section looked like its own store-within-a-store, and reminded me more of a Mac or Ulta in the way the makeup displays were set up. Same in electronics — the table displays of laptops and tablets felt a lot like they were intentionally modeled after an Apple or Microsoft store. In the toy section, customers searched on a large, touch screen monitor for additional toys sold online if they didn't find them on the shelf.
Upon entering the store, customers will notice a "Mobile Scan & Go" kiosk lined with handheld scanning devices. Shopping carts are equipped to hold a scanner. I took one to try it out and was surprised at how easy it was to use. I scanned the few items I bought that day — new lights for my bike and a small bag — before I dropped them into my cart. At the time of check out, I just scanned a QR code installed at the self check out station, and the mobile device uploaded everything I had scanned with the intention to buy. I swiped my card and was on my way. Users of the Walmart app can do the same thing using their own phones.
Instead of the usual McDonalds or Subway attached to the store, the Walmart in Lake Nona has Grown, an all organic, order-at-the-counter restaurant not affiliated with Walmart. The chain was started in Miami by Shannon Allen wife of two-time NBA champion, Ray Allen. The cute restaurant is bright and clean and it's just as expensive as one would expect for organic offerings. A cold-pressed juice and an organic grilled chicken-pesto pita cost me nearly $30. For just a second, I forgot I was in a Walmart store.
The goal of these new "innovation stores" is to be a testing ground for new services, Keene said. This comes at a time when retailers in Florida have more competition then ever before, with new grocery brands opening here and more people opting to buy online.
"It all boils down to customer experience," he said. "We already differentiate on price and great value. We're investing in stores and our online operation. The plan is working even against increased competition. The game has just started."
Walmart is investing $450 million in updating stores in Florida this year among other improvements, like recently renovated supercenters in Palm Harbor and Tampa. Florida accounts for 10 percent of all the company's remodeling plans this year, Keene said. Nine new stores are opening in the Sunshine State this year alone. Last month, the retailer opened a new ecommerce fulfillment facility in Polk County.
But Tampa Bay doesn't have an innovation store, where the customer service was by the far the best I've ever experienced at a Walmart. A suburb of Houston is the only other city that has one. But as the retail industry continues to be more competitive, one can hope that we'll see some of these innovations and changes at our local stores soon.
Contact Justine Griffin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.