Wal-Mart rolls out plans for holidays, will add in-store helpers

Posted: November 1, 2017 at 4:30 a.m.

Christmas trees are displayed at a Wal-Mart store in Chicago in this November 2015 file photo. The retailer said Tuesday that it will add more helpers to assist shoppers during the Christmas season.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. continues to invest heavily in its online business to keep pace with customer preferences and e-commerce competitors like Amazon.com. But the Bentonville retailer isn't forgetting about the importance of its 4,700 stores as the Christmas shopping season begins.

The retailer laid out some of its holiday strategies during a conference call with reporters Tuesday, revealing efforts to double down on its in-store plans. Wal-Mart said it will have more helpers positioned throughout stores to assist shoppers, is planning thousands of product demonstrations and will throw themed holiday "parties" as it leans on a vast physical presence.

"Sometimes convenience for a customer is having that store down the street open 24-7," said Tony Rogers, Wal-Mart U.S. chief marketing officer. "So it really continues to be a key part of the overall proposition for us. We're investing in that this year really more than we ever have so that -- even as we make investments across the enterprise -- we still have a focus on making it a great visit to the store when they show up."

Wal-Mart introduced extra helpers during last year's Christmas shopping season. Those workers were positioned at the front of stores and helped direct customers to available checkout lanes, opened additional registers and even went to get last-minute items for customers as they waited to check out.

Wal-Mart -- which said earlier this year that it will not hire seasonal workers for Christmas and will instead offer more hours for current employees -- will increase the number of helpers in stores this year.

In addition to being positioned at the front of stores, they'll support Wal-Mart's in-store pickup service and be available in popular departments such as toys and electronics.

Wal-Mart also said it will host about 165,000 product demonstrations across its fleet of stores to help customers "test and taste top items." Rogers said the retailer will hold three themed parties in stores as well, beginning with a toy-related event Saturday where shoppers will receive Wal-Mart's annual toys catalog and sticker sheets to mark favorite items.

"I've been doing this for many years, and this is definitely the most we've done in store," Rogers said.

Wal-Mart is hoping the in-store efforts will attract more customers and increase sales during the important Christmas season. Research firms expect an upbeat sales forecast this year.

The National Retail Federation projects Christmas sales will increase between 3.6 percent and 4 percent as compared with last year, while Deloitte projects 4 percent to 4.5 percent growth.

"With employment and incomes increasing, consumers are more confident this year, and that is reflected in their buying plans for the holidays," National Retail Federation President Matthew Shay said in a statement.

Most of the Christmas season transactions are expected to take place in stores, but Deloitte projects further growth in e-commerce sales as consumers continue to do more of their shopping online. The research firm estimates that Christmas e-commerce sales will increase 18 percent to 21 percent compared with last year.

Wal-Mart believes it is better equipped to meet those online demands during the Christmas season because of its investments over the past couple of years. The company has tripled its online assortment since last year and is delivering products quicker through services like free two-day shipping on orders over $35.

Customers also can choose how they want to receive their products whether it's through home deliveries or pickup services at Wal-Mart stores. Wal-Mart is offering discounts on items if customers order them online and elect to pick the products up at stores. Its grocery pickup service -- in which customers order groceries online and have them carried to the car -- is available at more than 1,100 locations.

Wal-Mart did not discuss its Black Friday plans during Tuesday's conference call, saying those details will be revealed at a later date. But Steve Bratspies, the company's chief merchandising officer for U.S. stores, said Wal-Mart will begin offering discounts on thousands of items this weekend.

"We're buying as much inventory as we think we can handle and sell," Bratspies said. "The [distribution centers] are full right now and the stores are starting to fill up with holiday inventory. So we think we're going to be in a really strong position to handle the demand both online and in stores that customers have for us."

Business on 11/01/2017