Walmart is using virtual reality to train more than 1 million in-store employees

Following a promising pilot program, Walmart has turned to virtual reality to train its more than 1 million U.S. in-store employees.

Every one of the company’s more than 5,000 locations by the end of the year will be stocked with Oculus Go VR machines, cheaper models compared to higher-end competitors, such as Dell’s HTC Vive. With input from Walmart, the California-based VR software creator STRIVR came up with 45 VR programs to train employees on just about everything related to in-store operations, from slicing deli meats to re-stocking items like kale and carrots. Though terms of the deal were not disclosed, the partnership works by STRIVR purchasing the devices from Oculus, then customizing them with Walmart-specified software.

The VR technology allows existing Walmart employees to learn new skills more quickly, and with less oversight, according to Brock McKeel, senior director of digital operations at Walmart.

“VR training provides a safe space for associates to experience situations that are nearly impossible to replicate,” McKeel said in a statement. “The training is experiential, memorable, and fast.”

It’s also more efficient. The technology stops Walmart from having to have to hire new on-boarding professionals, or else divert existing staffers to oversee training, according to Danny Belch, head of marketing for STRIVR.

“Training in corporate America is looking for something new and looking for a boost and is to the point where the performance is suffering and companies are just looking for better, faster, cheaper, more effective ways to train,” said Belch.

Walmart first started testing the technology two years ago. By the end of the year, there will be 17,000 Oculus devices split up between all of Walmart’s stores. The pilot started in 2016 at a handful of Walmart locations, before expanding to 200 of Walmart’s training “academies” — or off-site training locations — last year.

STRIVR has also struck deals with major American companies across a range of industries, including BMW, Fidelity, Chipotle and JetBlue.

Retailers have had a tough go figuring out how to use VR to entice customers, but the technology has compelling use cases for internal training and other back-end operations. L’Oréal in 2017 started using VR in its New York headquarters to speed up the research and development process for new product lines, cutting the process down from months to weeks. Chipotle, meanwhile, is using VR to get its employees up to speed on its burrito lines more quickly.

For Walmart’s purposes, VR also allows for employees to be trained for worst-case scenarios that don’t happen often but require a clear-cut plan, said Anindya Ghose, a professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business. He cited Hurricane Florence as a recent example.

“It’s costly to create an environment for training that doesn’t happen that often,” said Ghose. “You’re trying to train employees for some weather-related disaster, so creating an environment like that in the real world is going to be tricky or expensive. So, why not have employees simulate that? In this way, you save a bunch of money.”

Marat Bakpayev, assistant professor of marketing at the Labovitz School of Business and Economics at University of Minnesota Duluth, blamed expensive and uncomfortable headsets or the need for high-end computers for VR’s inability to gain mainstream traction. Augmented reality has been an easier sell for retailers, including Williams Sonoma. But Bakpayev said such corporate partnerships in the meantime are key for companies like Oculus, adding that employees exposed to the technology for work may well end up buying a VR headset for their home.

“It’s going to be growing more and more, I believe,” said Bakpayev. “That’s one of the cool things about emerging technologies in general.”

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