When it comes to learning new skills, there’s no substitute for real-world experience. This is true at school, at play, and especially at work, where your familiarity with new products and services are vital to success on the job. It's tough for any business to prepare their workforce to succeed. But for companies as big as Walmart Inc., it can be particularly tricky.
Walmart employs more than one million associates in the U.S., which creates unique challenges when it comes to training everyone on new services, products, and most importantly, customer service. As the largest private employer in the U.S., the leadership team at Walmart is always shopping around for ideal training solutions — something that’s practical, intuitive, and capable of scaling globally to meet the needs of a rapidly changing marketplace.
“That’s where VR works well. We can create scenarios that may never happen (like severe weather training) or situations that happen all the time, but we don’t want to disrupt our stores to give associates firsthand experience,” says Andy Trainor, senior director of Walmart U.S. Academies. “VR lets them explore these sorts of scenarios in a firsthand way.”
As part of an ongoing collaboration with STRIVR, a leading provider of immersive VR training, and Oculus, Walmart is reshaping the way businesses train a global workforce at scale. Last month, Walmart announced its plan to expand its pilot VR training program by delivering 17,000 Oculus Go headsets to stores across the country, making it one of the largest deployments of its kind in history.
Participants in Walmart’s early VR training program reported a 30 percent higher training satisfaction using the Rift and associated modules developed by STRIVR, versus other training materials and methods. What’s more, 70 percent of employees who trained on Rift outperformed groups trained with other materials and techniques. What started as a pilot program with a few modules has grown to a fully stocked training catalogue, drawing on STRIVR’s early experience with science-based VR sports training.
“It went so well we began thinking about ways to introduce VR to more associates,” Trainor says.
How many more? Try over a million. To pull this off, Walmart turned to Oculus Go, the all-in-one VR headset that went on sale earlier this year.
“Oculus Go will allow us to ship headsets to our 4,500 stores and enable more than 1 million associates to experience VR training,” Trainor says. “We’re excited about bringing a VR experience to our associates who interact with our customers the most.”
The web of logistical challenges involved in such a feat are enough to make your head spin, but results coming out of Walmart Academies — associates reported a boost in overall confidence and morale, for instance — proved too hard to ignore and spoke to the transformative power of immersive training.
Brock McKeel, senior director of digital operations at Walmart, sees VR as a way to prepare associates for the unexpected.
“VR training provides a safe space for associates to experience situations that are nearly impossible to replicate,” McKeel says. “The training is experiential, memorable, and fast. For example, associates in stores receiving our new Pickup Towers — think vending machines for online orders — used VR training to learn how to use it in about 10 minutes.”
Learning new skills as efficiently as possible is important and requires a flexible training program. Designing each module required tight collaboration between the digital experience experts at Walmart and the development team at STRIVR, including daily module reviews to keep pace with changing business needs and cutting-edge store technologies.
With over 45 training modules already available, and the ability to modify or add new modules, there’s no limit to the kinds of experiences and “what if” scenarios a business can dream up. This range gives workers a competitive edge — even if that edge is simply keeping a cool head during the busiest time of year.
“If you’ve never experienced Black Friday as an associate, it is impossible to give the associate the feel of that event,” McKeel says. “But with VR, we are able to put the associate in the experience and take some of the nerves out of the unknown.”
For Walmart, what started as an experiment has grown to a comprehensive training program capable of preparing any associate for anything they might encounter on the retail floor. Immersive technology is a new approach to training, but the most important thing is that it brings Walmart's teams closer to the people who've made it all possible since the beginning: customers.
“A particularly moving VR experience gives you the experience of ringing up a customer who is paying in change,” Trainor says. “Our associates are trained to serve customers as quickly and pleasantly as possible but paying in change causes delays and frustration for other customers. The VR training helps the associates understand each customer has a story and to embrace that story when serving them.”