What’s it like to train for Walmart’s Black Friday? Local stores use virtual reality goggles

Tampa Bay Times reporter Sara DiNatale is taken through a Walmart Black Friday module using footage from an actual store, shown on the TV screen behind her. Assisting is Walmart employee Debbie Valdes. [Courtesy of Walmart]
Tampa Bay Times reporter Sara DiNatale is taken through a Walmart Black Friday module using footage from an actual store, shown on the TV screen behind her. Assisting is Walmart employee Debbie Valdes. [Courtesy of Walmart]
Published November 8 2018

ST. PETERSBURG ó Virtual reality is now inside retailersí back rooms: Walmart is using the goggles made popular by video games to teach its employees how to handle swarms of shoppers on Black Friday.

Not just Black Friday, but any number of situations workers may run into on the sales floor, stock room or produce department. These situations arenít re-creations, either. The Black Friday module is created from real footage from an actual Walmart store captured on a 360-degree camera positioned behind a storeís electronicís counter.

"Black Friday is a busy, hectic day for everyone," said St. Petersburg Walmart employee, Sandi Hughes. "With the VR, an associate can feel how it can play out without being on the sales floor and worrying about, Ďif I make a mistake, Iím going to be in trouble.í"

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A decade before I was a retail reporter, I was a cashier at a big-box store similar to Walmart.

When Hughes slipped the virtual reality, or VR, goggles over my glasses I was brought right back to the realities of Black Friday: the dozens of shoppers, packed carts and endless lines.

I said Iíd never go back. But through the magic of modern technology, I was knee-deep in clamoring shoppers, long lines and an anticipated amount of retail chaos. A manager desperately searching for keys no one seemed to have; a toddler standing up in her shopping cart seat causing the kind of safety hazard that makes you cringe; a woman with one nasty scowl on her face as she was getting checked out.

And all of this is going on at once in an immersive stream of video. Another Walmart employee, Debbie Valdes, paused the video to ask me questions as if I was an employee in training .

Like: You noticed this standing toddler, what should you do?

The wrong answer? Talk straight to the toddler. Valdes said parents donít want to feel like youíre parenting their child. But if you talk straight to the parent and say you want to ensure the child is safe and could she please sit down in the cart, most times youíll get a positive response.

Valdes said in the classroom, the entire group in the training works together to come up with answers on how they could handle the varying real-life situations.

Itís a big change from what used to be the standard in retail training: binders of information, computer slides, quizzes and scripted video segments.

The biggest asset Walmart has over online retailers such as Amazon is its physical retail space. Some shoppers prefer to be able to touch, feel or examine items before buying. Hughes, who helps train Walmart managers, said the VR and its real-life footage are valuable tools to help employees to foster "a seamless shopping experience."

Inside the Walmart on Bay Pines Avenue in St. Petersburg, thereís a small school tucked into the back room. Itís one of five "Walmart Academies" in the greater Tampa Bay area and 200 across the country. Thatís where Hughes and Valdes get to work as a Walmart "facilitators" and lead classes for hourly and salary supervisors.

During the last year, the VR goggles and modules were only used in the academy. But now theyíre being shipped to the regionís nine Walmart Supercenters and 10 Walmart Neighborhood Markets. Dozens of new modules have been created, focusing on being a cashier, working in the deli or stocking produce.

Walmart is using the same high-tech Oculus goggles that are being used for video games. The same technology also is being used by used by local architecture companies so clients can "walk around" and look at 3-D renderings of their to-be built buildings.

Hughes paused after explaining how Walmart training has advanced even in just the last few years because of technology.

"Makes you wonder what it will look like in another 10 years," she said.

Contact Sara DiNatale at sdinatale@tampabay.com. Follow @sara_dinatale.