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Wal-Mart Stores Inc. wants to make returns easier for customers and will roll out a new service across its 4,700 U.S. stores next month.

The service, called mobile express returns, builds on Wal-Mart's previous creation of express lanes for its in-store pharmacy and money services areas. The returns program will be available for customers through Wal-Mart's mobile app starting in early November and first will apply to items sold and shipped by Walmart.com. It will be extended to include in-store purchases in early 2018.

"We've always had a great returns policy," Daniel Eckert, Wal-Mart's senior vice president for services and digital acceleration, said. "But we also know returning an item and waiting for a refund, especially for a product purchased at Walmart.com online, isn't always seamless. That's why we've completely transformed the process for our customers."

Eckert said customers using the service will start the return process through Wal-Mart's mobile app by selecting items from their purchase histories. Then at the store, customers will use a mobile express lane at the service desk, scan a QR code at the desk and hand the item to return to a Wal-Mart employee.

Refunds will be credited to the customer's payment account as soon as the next day. Customers who order products online and ship them back to retailers typically have to wait several days for the return to be credited to their accounts.

Eckert said Wal-Mart has been working on the reinvention of its return services for months, including the introduction of employee-facing technology designed to make the process seamless for workers. The new technology for employees helped trim wait times on returns from an average of 5 minutes to about 90 seconds, according to Eckert.

The customer-facing mobile express option is expected to trim in-store returns to an average of 30 seconds.

"If it arrives on their doorstep from Walmart.com and it's easier to take a short ride to their store to return it, it better be a convenient and simple experience and not a frustrating one," Eckert said.

The in-store express option is just one part of Wal-Mart's revamped return plan, which is being rolled out ahead of the Christmas shopping season. In addition, Eckert said the company is working to unveil a service as early as December that will let shoppers who have ordered certain products online to receive a refund without returning the item.

The "keep it" policy will initially apply to household items like shampoo, cosmetics and cleaning supplies with others added over time. Customers will see an option in the app that allows them to instantly receive a refund. They will have to select the reason for the refund -- like a damaged item -- before receiving approval.

"We've invested a lot of time and energy in that technology to make sure that we're offering that capability to our customers who aren't being abusive," Eckert said. "We can detect those folks that may be trying to take advantage of that system and we have the appropriate checks and balances."

The reinvented return service continues Wal-Mart's efforts to make shopping more convenient for customers by integrating its vast network of physical stores with growing digital capabilities.

The retailer previously has introduced services like online grocery pickup, free two-day shipping without a membership fee and a discount pickup program that offers reduced prices on items if they are ordered online and collected at a store. Wal-Mart has introduced other convenience tools as well as it competes with other retailers like online giant Amazon.com, including its pickup towers and mobile express options in the pharmacy and financial services.

Carol Spieckerman, a retail consultant and president of Spieckerman Retail, believes Wal-Mart's new return options are another "real step in the right direction" in finding solutions to problems that often can alienate customers. But she also cautioned that Wal-Mart's mobile express return program isn't simply being unveiled to benefit customers.

"Undoubtedly, Wal-Mart did the math and logistical mapping to arrive at the conclusion that streamlining and even encouraging in-store returns is preferable to taking them in through shipments," Spieckerman said. "Doing so also drives traffic to its stores, increasing the potential to add incremental sales as customers return goods."

Spieckerman pointed to one other potential hitch as well. The return policy does not include items purchased online from third-party vendors who sell on Walmart.com. She said the retailer could run into problems with some customers who want to return products sold by those third-party vendors.

"Wal-Mart customers think of Walmart.com as 'Wal-Mart' regardless of where the products originate and will expect Wal-Mart to accept returns for any items available on its digital platform," Spieckerman said.

Eckert said Wal-Mart is working to address that matter by creating a similar service that covers those returns, but it is taking additional time because of the number of third-party marketplace sellers on its site.

"It's a little more complex problem for us to tackle right out of the gate and we want to do it right and correct both for our marketplace sellers and for our customers so that it's the best experience we can offer," Eckert said.

SundayMonday Business on 10/09/2017

Print Headline: New Wal-Mart service to speed up returns

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