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Q&A: Walmart Canada's Laurent Duray on the retailer’s aggressive e-comm play

The SVP, e-commerce discusses the interplay between online and physical retail, and the challenges of expanding e-grocery so quickly
Laurent Duray, senior vice-president of e-commerce, Walmart Canada

Like just about every other business in the grocery industry, the pandemic has driven massive and long-lasting change at Walmart Canada.

In the last 18 months, Walmart’s online grocery pickup offering has doubled. It has been introduced to 150 Walmart Supercentres, and by the end of the year fully 99% of all Walmart Supercentres (approximately 350) will provide the option for online grocery shopping to its customers.

READ: Walmart Canada ramps up its e-commerce business

The pandemic has accelerated everything when it comes to online shopping for Walmart, said Laurent Duray, the retailer's senior vice-president, e-commerce.

“It really forced us to pivot, make drastic investments in our stores and infrastructure, and [to adjust] how we think about our stores,” he said. “[And] not just the stores, how we think about parking lots, invest in the backroom, in our associates' training.

“There were plans, but we had to accelerate drastically to meet the demand… probably by three to four years.”

Duray spoke with Canadian Grocer this week about how Walmart expanded its online grocery business so quickly and lessons learned from the experience.

Can you point to one or two of the most difficult challenges of expanding online so much in the past 18 months?

We've been hiring thousands of people through the pandemic, and mostly in our store network to answer the demand. That's been a challenge because not only do you have to recruit, but you have got to train them to make sure you deliver against customer expectation. The other piece is technology, but it’s capacity as well. You have to make sure the stores are ready to handle that level of volume. We considered a number of things, like how do you free up capacity and create a store-in-a-store in the backroom so they can have access to the SKUs turning the fastest. We wanted to make it efficient, fast and less disruptive for the in-store customers.

Can you say more about store-in-store?

It's really leveraging a portion of the backroom, where you have hundreds of SKUs that are dedicated for e-comm only, to disrupt the in-store customers as little as possible.

READ: Walmart Canada spending $500 million to modernize stores

You said you’ve had to hire thousands of people. For what parts of the business?

Teams across the board that would help to make the life of our customers much better. It can be from pickers in stores, to drivers, to people in our home office working on the site experience, or on the tech team. There really is a broad range. You can imagine that a lot of people were in the stores, because that's where the demand was the highest.

One of the common consumer concerns about online grocery shopping is about produce and fresh product. Have you done anything to make your customers feel better about buying fresh and produce from Walmart?

I think it's a constant way of working and improving. We're obviously learning and training our associates to be able to pick a produce item in a different way, and to handle those items in a different way that they would a box of cereal or a pair of socks. So, it's a lot of investment in training. That's where we spend most of our time. Then there is a customer promise around freshness that we keep pushing, so if the customer is not satisfied we will reimburse them.

More online shopping means more consumer data. Can you say anything about what Walmart has learned about its customers in the last year from the increase in online shopping?

When they shop online, that behaviour is different than what they would do in stores. [We] get a lot more information on what they buy for themselves and their family. That helps us to improve our recommendation engine and get to personalization in terms of, ‘Hey David is an organic customer. Make sure that we recommend a lot more of the new items that have organic attributes to David and his family.’ So that has helped us to be more personalized and ultimately more connected with our customers.

Have you been able to use that to increase basket size?

There are a few things. If you usually buy a bag of 2% milk and for some reason this week it's not in your basket, we would be able to remind you --‘Hey, did you forget about this?’ And in most cases, yes they forgot about it. So that helps to create a better customer experience because now they don't have to run to a convenience store last minute to [buy milk].

What are you most proud of from the last 18 months or so?

We pivoted very quickly as an organization. And, we've been able to unlock a lot more assortment than probably anybody in Canada at the minute. We're the only retailer that can offer a wide range of fresh food, consumable, general merchandising, at a high speed and very low price. We're very proud of that and we're going to keep making that experience better and faster and with more range for the customer.

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