Opportunity

From Football to Retail: Virtual Reality Debuts in Associate Training

Inspiration can come from surprising places. Take college football, for instance.

You’d probably never guess that one of Walmart’s newest training tools got its start from an associate watching the University of Arkansas football team practice. But that’s exactly what happened.

Brock McKeel, senior director of central operations, saw how the athletes were interacting with the virtual reality (VR) technology during practice, putting them in real-life scenarios to test their skills and reactions. He talked with the team and one of the coaches – all confirmed VR had helped them improve performance on the field. After seeing the university’s success, Brock had an idea: This could easily be applied to our Walmart Academy training for store associates.

Imagine you’re a new Walmart store manager and you’ve never experienced a Black Friday. 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?

Using the same technology as the football team, we incorporated VR into 30 academies and we used it to train our associates to handle situations from the everyday, like managing the fresh area, to the rare, like Black Friday.

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.

Ultimately, everything associates do is geared toward giving customers the best experience. Through VR, associates can see how their actions affect that. It’s helpful for associates to see mistakes in a virtual environment and know how to deal with them before they experience it in real life and don’t know what to do.

From our test, we’ve seen that associates who go through VR training retain what they’ve learned in those situations better than those who haven’t. Because of the promising results, we’ll be rolling out this training to all 200 of our Academy facilities by the end of 2017. That means, the over 140,000 associates who will graduate from academies each year will have VR as an integral part of that experience.

“When they said we were going to be using VR for training, I thought it was brilliant,” said Sean Gough, Academy facilitator at our Broken Arrow, Oklahoma store. “From cashier to lawn and garden, to electronics or fresh – there are just so many areas where I think this training would be so helpful.” As we test and learn from using this technology, we’re sure to find more and more ways to apply it.

When Sean first tried the VR training, he was able to virtually transport to another store and see how they were running things. It gave him a different perspective, which he felt would be great for store managers to experience. As a manager, you don’t usually have time to travel to other stores to see how things are done, but this technology would allow them to travel to a store across the country without even leaving their own store.

“I feel really proud that Walmart would invest so much in training, particularly at the level they have,” Sean said. And he is proud to play a part in this investment. As an Academy teacher, Sean helps others be leaders and experts in customer satisfaction. He enjoys seeing the associates he’s taught pass on that training, because this helps create futures for others.

Sean sees a great sense of pride from the people going through his Academy. As associates see all of the technology and enthusiasm we put into making them better, it encourages them, makes them feel good about their job – feel good about working for Walmart. Sean commented, “I think people leave my class thinking 'Walmart cares and they take care of me.'”

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.

Yeah, it’s cool. But it actually works. And it’s all thanks to a little football.

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Business

Q&A: Eko Founder on Walmart Deal, Changing the Game in Entertainment

Walmart and Eko’s new joint venture, W*E Interactive Ventures, is poised to bring an exciting approach to entertainment to a much larger audience. We caught up with Yoni Bloch, the CEO of Eko, to learn more about the future of his company’s work with Walmart.

Q: For those who don’t know Eko, tell us about your technology and approach to interactive media.

A: Eko is a technology company leading the charge in interactive entertainment. We have over 15 patents that enable the creation, distribution, measurement and monetization of streaming interactive video. All these things come together as a storytelling platform that empowers participants to shape stories as they unfold.

Since 2010, we’ve created interactive content for major brands like Coca-Cola, Samsung, IKEA, Shell, Madewell and Red Bull. We’ve collaborated with artists like Coldplay, Carly Rae Jepsen, Aloe Blacc, Major Lazer and Bob Dylan.

More recently, we’ve ventured into interactive serialized entertainment. We’ve launched the comedy, That Moment When, with Sony and a reimagining of 1983’s WarGames with MGM.

With our Walmart partnership, we are excited to explore groundbreaking interactive content even further.

Q: What separates your interactive content from other entertainment sources?

A: There’s a vast landscape of entertainment sources out there; from Candy Crush to Game of Thrones to social media. They’re all valid and exciting mediums, but none combine interactivity with filmmaking.

Eko Originals are created by acclaimed Hollywood storytellers and game visionaries to harness the best of both of these worlds and give audiences greater participation than ever before. A viewer suddenly transforms into a participant creating an incredible sense of collaboration and complicity in the story itself. With our content, we suddenly have the “water cooler effect 2.0”: Instead of discussing the season finale, you’ll discuss what happened on your season finale.

Q: How do you envision Eko’s technology changing the ways that we interact with entertainment?

A: We all interact thousands of times a day. Every single person has a media playing device on them at all times (sometimes two or three). Texting, playing games, chatting—everything we do is interactive. And then video starts to play and...we lean back. Storytelling is the last medium to catch up.

But those days are over. The bandwidth is here, the hardware is here and now the software is here. Everyone’s ready to be a part of their stories, and we’re happy to give them these experiences.

We’re not changing the way we interact. We’re catching up to how we already do.

Q: Why are you passionate about audiences interacting with their media in this way?

A: Rather than sit back as passive viewers, interactivity empowers audiences to participate in stories. This drives deeper emotional connections with content, leading to unprecedented levels of engagement.

Depending on the interactive experience, participants could shape a protagonist’s decisions and personality or completely change the tone of the show—the possibilities are endless. You get drawn in when you make choices. You become more empathetic, more invested, more inspired.

Our belief is that interactivity should bring you closer to the feeling that your imagination is part of the story. Otherwise, interactivity is just a gimmick. And, we’re not a gimmick. We’re a powerful tool for self-expression.

Q: Talk about this deal with Walmart. What possibilities will this open up for Eko and Walmart?

A: This is the biggest investment to date in interactive video entertainment. It creates an unprecedented opportunity to develop premium interactive series but also to link commerce and entertainment in innovative ways that are entertaining and helpful.

By pulling in consumers to engage and shape their own personalized experiences, we are innovating far beyond the passive viewing experience of traditional digital video, branded or not.

Our partnership is part of a larger entertainment ecosystem Walmart is building. Through interactive content, Walmart will ultimately connect with its customers on a much deeper, more meaningful level. Through our partnership, we’re combining forces to bring the next generation of premium interactive entertainment to a diverse, mainstream audience.

Q: What can customers and viewers expect from this venture?

A: If you’re a gamer, your jaw will drop the first time you play a movie. If you love movies and TV, your jaw will drop when you realize you can be part of the story.

Everyone who participates in an Eko Original has the same reaction: “This is the future.”

From the moment you begin, you realize you’re on the cusp of an entirely new art form. By just participating in it, you’re part of it.

Passive entertainment isn’t going away. But interactive entertainment is here at long last. So, what can they expect? They can expect to have their minds blown.

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Opportunity

How My Disability is Helping Make Walmart.com More Accessible

On August 28, 2000, I began my career at Walmart eCommerce.

I began as a product copywriter, responsible for writing thousands of item descriptions. I progressed to become a senior manager on our site merchandising and customer experience team.

At the same time I was expanding my focus on customer experience, I was also losing my eyesight.

By 2015, I was in the thick of vision loss, but refused to let anyone see the battle I was fighting inside. I came to work every day without using a white cane or guide dog, because I was afraid of what people would think if they knew I had a disability. Would their perceptions of my abilities change? Would this impact my career growth?

I soon began using assistive technology called a screen reader that read all accessible content on my computer, tablet and smart phone – enabling me to thrive in a digital world. Within a matter of days, I quickly realized that for the first time in 15 years, I could no longer shop our website. Walmart.com was not accessible for screen readers. I immediately thought about the more than 20% of the U.S. population touched by disabilities and wondered how many of them couldn’t shop our site, either.

I suddenly realized that I had an opportunity to make a difference on inclusion for our associates and accessibility for our customers. It was time to take what I perceived as a liability and turn it into an asset. As I began to share my situation with a trusted HR partner, she introduced me to a colleague, and now dear friend, Russell Shaffer, who has the same degenerative retinal disease as me. Russell’s passion for inclusion and his invaluable support (along with my first guide dog) gave me just the dose of courage I needed to be able to bring my true self to work.

Nearly three years later, I can tell you that the day I stepped out of my comfort zone is the day I stepped into the most challenging, yet rewarding, job of my career. Today, I am proud to lead accessibility for Walmart eCommerce, proud to co-chair our internal group for associates with disabilities and proud to be part of a company that continues to promote the importance of diverse thought leadership as part of its overall commitment to diversity and inclusion.

I am now principal product owner of digital accessibility, and my job is educating and enabling teams across our company to build accessibility into our culture and the way we work. When we start with digital inclusion and universal design, we deliver a better experience for everyone. Walmart eCommerce is just embarking on the accessibility journey. We’re proud of the progress we’ve made and excited about the opportunity to continue optimizing our digital properties. From the audits of our site and apps to the changes we’ve made in our processes, we’re continuing to make our experience more accessible. We have also made great strides with our grocery offering, as we know how important it is to make grocery shopping easy for everyone. And, our customers with disabilities have told us online grocery pickup and delivery are making a difference in their lives.

Another key focus area is driving accessibility innovation for internal software applications, ensuring that everything Walmart builds for the accessibility of our customers is also built to make associates’ lives easier as well.

Sharing my story has been one of the best decisions I have ever made. I am grateful for both the personal and professional connections that I’ve made along this journey.

In addition to my day-to-day work at Walmart, I also frequently travel to conferences to speak. The thing that humbles me the most, and what makes my work so rewarding, is the fact that other major corporations are also making accessibility a priority for the benefit of their customers and colleagues. When Microsoft, Apple, Facebook and Google can all sit down together over the issue of accessibility and devote their resources toward tackling this challenge, it transcends competitive boundaries and sends a clear message that people with disabilities are assets. We bring new and different perspectives to the workforce, we adapt quickly and are extreme problem solvers.

Thanks to the culture of trust within Walmart, I am really proud to be me. The me with a disability. The me that is so honored to be part of a team of associates who have leaned in and learned how to truly make a difference in so many people’s lives.

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Innovation

You’ll Never Believe Who’s Scrubbing the Floors at Walmart

The floor of a Walmart store doesn’t get a lot of attention from customers.

That’s because when it’s in perfect condition, it’s shiny, sparkling and simply just there – gliding carts and people along and acting as the backdrop for an uncomplicated, list-checking experience.

Creating this often overlooked, yet important experience has, however, required a LOT of attention from Walmart associates. In fact, for two hours each day, an associate at each of our U.S. stores sits on a scrubbing machine to make sure the floor plays the flawless, clean-yet-invisible role.

Two hours per day. It’s time an associate would rather spend serving customers, so we’ll soon be deploying a very modern solution: the Auto-C – Autonomous Cleaner. Much like a self-driving car, this machine uses assisted autonomy technology to clean and polish floors, freeing up associates to take care of other tasks. Instead of riding the scrub machine, a Walmart associate can be tidying restrooms, dust-mopping the checkout aisles, or engaging with customers.

Available in 78 stores today and rolling out in around 360 soon, Auto-C is just one piece of technology that is making Walmart more efficient. The Auto-C is still pretty young and needs adult supervision (an associate has to prep the area and map the machine’s route), but we’re excited about the role it will play – along with the Auto-S scanning machine, Alphabot, and Pickup towers – in Walmart’s technology ecosystem.

Look for Auto-C coming soon to an impeccably clean floor near you.

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Community

The Delivery That Saved the Day for One Florence-Affected Community

Fielding phone calls. Answering emails. Organizing an airlift. Just a typical day for your average Walmart market assistant.

On Sept. 18, Misty Amos, who works as an assistant for Walmart stores in the Eastern region, received a call from Walmart’s Emergency Operations Center.

Days before, Hurricane Florence had ripped through North Carolina’s coast. With flood waters rising, over a hundred people had evacuated their homes and found refuge in a shelter in Fairmont, North Carolina. One problem: The surrounding roads were flooded, leaving the shelter completely cut off from food and supplies.

The 145th Airlift Wing of North Carolina’s Air National Guard had decided to deliver much-needed goods to the shelter via Blackhawk helicopter, but they needed supplies. They called Walmart for help, and that’s where Misty came in.

Misty’s Market Manager was out of the office leading a team of associates who were helping a local store return to normal so when the National Guard request came her way, it was up to Misty to help mobilize associates to help on the ground. She worked with a local store manager to collect supplies for 130 men, women, and children – including a 4-week-old infant who was refusing formula but would accept whole milk.

First, the associates at store 2058 in Raleigh loaded up carts with food, toiletries, underwear and baby supplies. They were even able to find shelf-stable whole milk for the baby. The team boxed the items, grouped the merchandise into pallets, and loaded it all into a U-Haul, which they then delivered to the Air National Guard at Raleigh-Durham Airport.

Meanwhile, a local Sam’s Club was also on the case. Club associates moved with speed to load a Red Cross vehicle with donations for the shelter.

Wait, were the Walmart store and Sam’s Club duplicating efforts? Was there going to be more merchandise than the helicopter could handle?

No problem, said the Guard unit. We’ll just organize a second drop.

It’s a good thing they did. Right before the second chopper took off to make the delivery, the Red Cross reached out to say that not too far from the shelter, a medical facility was in desperate need of blood donations. The Red Cross was able to add blood supplies to store and club donations, and the helicopter made a slight detour to deliver blood, too.

Maybe the most surprising part of this story? This whole mission – from the time the call came into the Emergency Operations Center to the time the helicopter touched down in Fairmont – took four hours.

Yes, you read that right. Four hours.

This is just one example of partnership during this multi-state disaster. Misty set her coworkers into action, and by working cross-functionally with the public sector and NGOs such as the American Red Cross, Walmart associates were able to make a meaningful difference to neighbors who had suffered unimaginable loss.

Misty and her team were able to deliver a bit of dignity to the families at the shelter. When asked about the airlift, the 23-year associate downplays her efforts. Having worked for the company during Hurricanes Katrina, Harvey, and Maria, she knows disaster recovery has become an integral part to the way we do business.

“We’re Walmart,” she says, “It’s just what we do.”

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