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CSA Exclusive: Walmart creates real-world training scenarios with VR

Walmart is leveraging leading-edge virtual reality (VR) solutions to ensure employees are ready for the myriad challenges of customer service.

“In-store experiences can be hard to replicate or predict,” Michelle Malashock, director of media relations and corporate communications for Walmart, said in an interview with Chain Store Age. “You don’t want to let associates learn from customer experience.”

To safely recreate certain high-pressure store scenarios, Walmart employs Oculus Go VR headsets for onsite training and Oculus Rift VR headsets for training at one of Walmart’s 200 regional employee academies. Walmart has placed four Oculus Go VR headsets at every Walmart supercenter, and two units to every Neighborhood Market and discount store in the US.

“Associates can learn and feel safe,” explained Malashock. “They can try new things and have a chance to fail while not in front of the customer.”

Employees view virtual reality videos filmed in actual Walmart stores that recreate a wide variety of real-life events they will likely encounter during their shifts. While most videos utilize actors to dramatize different scripted scenarios, for at least one significantly challenging customer experience event, Walmart uses actual in-store footage.

“For our Black Friday training module, there is no way to recreate that very rich scene in real time,” said Malashock. “So we used a camera in a store to record the real events of a Black Friday. Employees can learn how to handle the experience before they first encounter it in a store.”

To that end, trainees utilize the Oculus Go headsets to obtain a virtual, customer-eye view of a typical shopping experience. “You get to see the stress customers are under and why they act a certain way,” commented Malashock. “It’s like taking reps for football. You don’t want the first time your quarterback takes a snap to be at the Super Bowl. You want them taking snaps in practice with their teammates. Store associates don’t have that luxury.”

In addition, employees wearing Oculus Rift headsets are connected to a computer which displays a projection of everything they see, enabling instructors to provide constructive feedback and also allowing associates to see how their fellow trainees respond to different situations. Employee retention rates have improved since Walmart launched VR training, according to Malashock.

Walmart also recently started leveraging the Oculus Go headsets to evaluate candidates for internal promotion.

“We have four training modules that put the person in the body of the person in the role they’re applying for,” said Malashock. “We’ll take a prospective store manager around the store, and they will experience things with multiple choice responses.”

For example, a store manager candidate will be asked to virtually perform tasks such as searching and finding specific products in a busy aisle, discover issues such as trash on a shelf, and prioritize issues for urgency of response. Malashock said there are no right or wrong choices, but Walmart analyzes results to help determine a candidate’s specific skillset and leadership potential.

“Virtual reality is one of many data points,” said Malashock. “It validates other impressions. The hiring team gets a readout and assesses it. We had an associate in Pennsylvania who had been a training coordinator, but tested high in leadership, above average in training and average in process. They got a team lead role because they were perfectly suited to lead and motivate a team.”

Looking ahead, Malashock said Walmart would like to turn its regional academies into community learning centers, with VR playing a key role.

“We want to train the public on virtual scenarios like how to respond to a tornado warning,” she said. “We want to look at ways to take virtual reality to the public at large. We hope to do so by the end of the year.”
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