Walmart buy-online-pick-up-in-store train wreck

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Credit: Mike Mozart

A single experience shouldn't condemn the tactic, but shoppers use one-time experiences all the time in deciding what shops and services to use in the future

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In the ongoing battle for brick-and-mortar chains to hold on to and grow their relevance, there is no more promising tool than buy-online-pick-up-in-store, especially when it also leverages mobile. Although this is certainly a wonderful technological achievement, it's a tactic that relies on, and can be done in by, store associates.

Having used the service many times, I have been a fan of how Walmart has delivered. But a few days ago, the world's largest retailer showed how bad bad can get when just one associate drops the ball. 

It may have been an anomaly. And yet — isolated experiences often lead to consumers making choices for the future. They can be prejudicial. If I didn't quite decide never to try this sort of thing again, it did make me think that it's a more delicate process than is generally thought.

All of this matters because online shopping is growing wildly. It doesn't dominate in the U.S., but there's no reason to think this country won't follow the rest of the world. In many major markets, online and mobile purchases have already toppled in-store transactions. In China, online sales now represent 76% of all sales, and Indian e-commerce sales hit 68%, according to a recent survey. Meanwhile, the National Retail Federation says e-commerce accounts for barely 7% of all U.S. sales.

Here's what happened on my Walmart adventure. I needed a new master remote control (when batteries leak, it can be an irreversible problem), and a quick search on Walmart.com revealed that a local store had the desired unit (two of them, in fact) at a good price. Wanting to save time and avoid waiting in line at the store, I ordered a unit from Walmart.com, paid, and was told to stand by for confirmation that it was ready. It made me do the password dance a few times, but it eventually accepted the order. So far, so good.

Within a few minutes, I received an email telling me that the order was complete and that I would momentarily receive another email telling me that I could pick it up. I waited. A half-hour passed, and no email arrived. An hour went by, and I was starting to realize that it would have been faster to go down to the store, find the item and wait in line.

I tried calling the store. I was repeatedly transferred to customer service and placed on hold, which would soon enough dissolve into a disconnect. Rinse, repeat. Called four times: four holds, four disconnects. I logged into Walmart.com and found my order, which indeed was labeled as ready for pickup. Checked my spam and junk mail folders and found nothing. Called again to try to confirm, but was merely told to report to customer service for pickup, with a proper photo ID.

Drove to Walmart and waited in line at customer service, which struck me as ironic given that the whole point had been to avoid waiting in line. Customer service took my printout and spent eight minutes failing to find the item. Then an associate asked me, "What is the reason for the return?" It's not a return. I am picking the item up. "Oh," they said, adding that I needed to go to a different customer service pickup spot. I said that the person who answered the phone at the store had told me to come to the main customer service desk. "She always gets that wrong," I was told, as though that would be a comfort.

Fear not, I was told. The manager used her headset to contact the other customer service desk (Walmart.com Services, as the printout correctly said) and verify that my item was there. The verification came and I was dispatched to the back of the store. The manager also assured me that the order wouldn't have been marked "ready for pickup" until an associate physically removed it from the shelf and brought it to the pickup station.

I then waited in a decidedly longer line at Walmart.com Services. When it was my turn, I handed over the now-crumpled printout and the associate looked around for the item. No luck. She went in the back to search and, after 10 minutes, came out empty-handed. (The line behind me had grown significantly by now.) She had no idea where it was. But are you certain it was brought back here? Yes, she said. I then made a suggestion: "Given that the site said that you had two in stock, why don't I just go to the aisle and find the second one?"

The associate paused and said that she wasn't sure that would work. I said I was willing to try and asked her which aisle it would be in. The manager standing next to her, who was training the associate, said she didn't know and didn't offer to look it up. No matter, I said, and I went off in search of my now rather aged remote control.

Finding electronics was comparatively easy and I found the land of remote controls. Matching the exact model, I noticed that there were still two on the shelf. "Two?" I thought. "Methinks that no one ever bothered to bring my remote up to the pickup area. Sigh."

I brought one of them back with me and was processed. I offered to show the government ID and was told that it wasn't necessary. Seems that adherence to the rules is not a big Walmart priority anymore. I was given my receipt and off I went.

The coup de grâce came five hours after I left the store. That's when an email arrived saying, "Items in Your Walmart.com Order Are Ready for Pickup." Just in case the message might have been delayed due to some clogged email server somewhere, I checked the full email headers. Nope; the message was sent from orders@walmart.com at 11:11 p.m. local time.

if Walmart, the world's largest retailer, lacks sufficient safeguards to make sure it doesn't handle buy-online-pick-up-in-store this poorly, what does that say about the rest of the industry?

Even more importantly, what message does this send to shoppers? The message to me was clear: First, I should have just gone to the store myself in the first place and saved myself an awful lot of time. And second, Walmart just sent a powerful reason to think Amazon.

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