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Walmart uses virtual reality to train for Black Friday

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Facilitator Matt Farnsworth uses the VR training in the Boise Walmart Academy to demonstrate a Black Friday sale to facilitator Austin Stratton. Photo by Sharon Fisher.

This is the first story in a three-part series on virtual reality. 

As retailers prepare for the traditional Black Friday start to holiday shopping, they are turning to a new tool: virtual reality.

Walmart now offers virtual reality (VR) training in all 200 of its Walmart Academies, located in stores, which help provide a standard way of training the associates. Managers and market associates take the training as well as hourly staff and supervisors.

The Boise Academy at 8300 West Overland is the only one in Idaho to offer VR training, which has been in operation since April 2017. Employees from about 25 other Walmart locations in other parts of Idaho travel there for the training, said Kirstie Matthews, who manages the facility.

Employees who have undergone the training show a five to 10 percent increase in test scores over employees who have not taken it, Matthews said.

While the Walmart system isn’t interactive – employees don’t get to practice actually working with the customers – the simulation gives employees a better idea of what Black Friday is actually like, said Matt Farnworth, a facilitator at the Boise academy. Trainers use video, recorded at a Walmart electronics department during an actual Black Friday sale, to point out situations to a classroom and discuss how they should be handled. These could include safety issues, missing resources, and other potentially stressful situations.

“It’s hard to recreate it in a classroom,” Farnworth said. “It gives participants a better understanding of what to expect.” The Black Friday scenario is one of more than 40 training modules the academies offer.

VR is expected to be a big player in the world of retail. Goldman Sachs predicted in 2016 that the market for AR and VR in retail would reach $1.6 billion by 2025, while BRP Consulting’s 2018 Digital Commerce Survey found that 32 percent of retailers surveyed expected to implement virtual reality within three years.

Much of that is expected to be customer-facing, either by enabling people to shop using VR, or bringing VR experiences, such as simulated hiking at outdoors retailers, to attract customers to brick-and-mortar stores. Retailers such as Neiman Marcus and Target are also investing in VR tools to demonstrate what makeup would look like on a customer, while Williams-Sonoma is using VR tools to help customers of its Pottery Barn and PBTeen stores see what adding products to a room would look like.

On the store operator side, VR is also being used to develop heat mapping analytics to determine what products and displays are attracting shoppers’ attention.

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Ramon Llamas

While Walmart believes it is the only retailer using VR to help train its employees, a number of other retailers likely are as well, but aren’t revealing it because they consider it a competitive advantage, said Ramon Llamas, research director for mobile devices, augmented reality and virtual reality for IDC, a Framingham, Massachusetts, consultancy. For example, he tried a forklift simulator in use at a major home improvement retailer.

“You can’t do that out of a book or a manual,” he said. “It’s not easy.”

VR training helps a company get associates on the floor in weeks instead of months, he said.

Walmart started testing VR technology in 2016 after an associate saw how the University of Arkansas football team was using VR to help practice unusual situations that were difficult to re-create. The company began with 30 academies and expanded nationwide when the trials proved successful. The academies can train about 7,000 employees a week on the VR technology, Matthews said.

The software comes from STRIVR, a Menlo Park, California-based company that specializes in VR training for companies and sports teams. The company expects to send four Oculus Go headsets to every Walmart Supercenter and two to every Neighborhood Market and Discount Store – a total of 17,000 – by the end of the year.

Walmart also acquired Spatialand, a company that makes software tools that transform existing content into immersive VR experiences, in February and has filed a number of patents on using VR in its stores.

About Sharon Fisher