MOBILE — In an example of Walmart's evolving e-commerce strategy, a company supercenter in Mobile County is allowing customers to digitally "try on" makeup through a virtual reality system called ModiFace.
"There are less than five of these in the country," said John Wimsatt, store manager of the Tillman's Corner Walmart, during a tour of the newly interactive store earlier this month.
He then turned to the nearby nail station and applied a "tester strip." The plastic attachment shows customers what colors of nail polish will look like once applied.
"I haven't seen this anywhere else," Wimsatt said.
This isn't your dad's Walmart anymore. The changes in Tillman's Corner, meant to blur to the line between the company's digital and long-established brick-and-mortar shopping experiences, will be rolling out at Walmart stores throughout the U.S. as the world's largest retailer battles for supremacy with online giant Amazon.
For now, the Tillman's Corner is one of a small handful of Walmarts to combine all the new technological features and redesigns. The store planned to show off its makeover during a grand reopening this month.
"This is one of the first stores of its kind in the nation, and we're thrilled its right here in Mobile," said Wimsatt.
The Tillman's Corner Walmart, located off Interstate 10 southwest of downtown Mobile, produces the second-most volume of any Walmart in Alabama, ranking only behind the store in Cullman. Approximately 50,000 people traverse through the Tillman's Corner store on any given week.
"As the success of this one pans out, then they will probably look to expand this further," said Wimsatt.
Among other new features:
• A 16-foot pickup tower will be built in the front of the store and will function like a high-tech vending machine, fulfilling orders made on Walmart.com and directed for pickup at Tillman's Corner. Using a scan code from a mobile device, the tower can retrieve and produce a customer's online order in less than a minute.
• Mobile express lanes have been added to the store's Money Service Center, allowing customers to initiate a money transfer or bill pay on the Walmart App and then use an express lane to fast-track through the line and quickly complete transactions. The Tillman's Corner store's Money Service Center has the highest volume of money transactions inside a Walmart store in Alabama.
• Electronic help buttons have been installed in key areas of the store to alert associates when a customer needs immediate assistance.
• The number of self-checkouts has been added to help save customers time.
In addition, the Tillman's Corner store has rearranged several departments. Among the notable changes is combining of its baby and children's apparel departments into a one-stop Baby & Kids area. Another change lowered counters and touch-and-learn displays in the entertainment department.
Brian Gibson, a professor of supply chain management at Auburn University, said Walmart's approach isn't necessarily about "being trendy," but more about reinventing their stores during a time of soaring online retail activity.
"People have quickly adopted the idea that I can buy it online and watch TV while someone picks up my grocery order for me," Gibson said. "Those conveniences are pulling shoppers out of stores. Retailers need to make the stores a destination where people have a reason and an interest of going into the store rather than sitting outside at the curb and have someone load their groceries into the car before driving away."
Walmart officials last month predicted that e-commerce sales should rise by about 40 percent in the fiscal year ending in early 2019. The company purchased one of the fastest-growing e-commerce companies last year in Jet.com Inc., and brought aboard its CEO to head up Walmart's U.S. efforts after online sales growth had slowed.
Walmart offers grocery pickup at 1,000 of its 4,700 U.S. stores, as it continues to integrate the digital and in-store experience.
At the Tillman's Corner store, one noticeable addition within the grocery area is the addition of hanging LED light blades, which add more brightness on vegetable and fruit displays. Said Wimsatt: "It brings out the colorization of the produce."
'Compete with Amazon'
Walmart is engaged in fierce competition with Seattle-based Amazon, which recently acquired Whole Foods Market. Now, Amazon has approximately 300 new physical distribution points for grocery products.
"Every move Walmart makes is to compete with Amazon," said Stacey Robinson, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Alabama.
She said the new pick-up towers at Walmart are "in direct response" to Amazon's locker network, launched in 2011. The Amazon lockers allow customers to selection a locker location as their delivery address to retrieve their online orders.
Robinson said the Amazon locker network "recently grew" because of the company's purchase of Whole Foods.
In August, Walmart announced a unique partnership with Google to make its products available to shoppers on Google Express. It marked the first time that Walmart had allowed its products to be sold online in the U.S. outside its own website.
Said Gibson: "It's a tremendously interesting time to observe how things are unfolding. Everyone is hyper-aware of what Amazon is doing but has to be selective on how they will compete. You have to, at the end of the day, make money in this retail business climate."