Walmart trains employees for holidays using virtual reality

Shoppers jammed the checkout line in Walmart’s electronics department during the holiday rush, their carts full of items to buy.

But as Perry Lewis, a Walmart assistant manager, surveyed the scene, he saw some problems: The long lines appeared disorganized; an associate left a register to grab an item; children crowded too close to the work space behind the counter; and some customers looked irritated.

Lewis watched the situation unfold not in the store but through a virtual reality headset he wore during a class at a Walmart training center in Glen Burnie. Because his three-dimensional view made the events seem real, he might as well have been in the middle of the action.

Virtual reality is more than just this season’s hot toy. The technology, long used to train the military, pilots and, more recently, athletes, has become the latest trend in workforce training.

“We saw this in sports, and now we’re seeing this with businesses,” said Derek Belch, founder and CEO of Strivr, a Menlo Park, Calif.-based virtual reality company that works with more than 30 professional sports teams and about a dozen Fortune 500 companies, including Walmart. “The employees are going through simulations and getting on the job two weeks later and saying they knew exactly what to do.”

Though virtual reality is not yet widely used either by consumers or businesses, a growing number of employers are eyeing the technology as potentially safer, more efficient and more cost effective than traditional forms of training.

The technology has garnered interest as it has become more affordable and user-friendly, said Belch, who studied virtual reality at Stanford University where he played football, served on the coaching staff and tested the technology in athlete training before starting Strivr three years ago.

His company now works with auto manufacturers, an airline, a trade school and shipping companies, and sees potential for occupations such as nursing and trial attorneys.

Belch points to academic research, including by Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, that has shown the value of immersive learning.

“If my brain feels like I’ve experienced something, it’s more powerful than reading, writing, observing,” Belch said. “Academic research says that this works.”

Plus, he added, employees like it because “it’s new, it’s different, it’s fun.”

At Walmart Service Academy training centers in stores around the country, including one that opened in August in Glen Burnie, the retailer has begun using virtual reality to prepare supervisors to handle situations that can’t be easily re-created in a classroom or shown in a store, everything from store operations to spills to the Black Friday crush.

Walmart became interested in the technology when a senior manager saw how football players at the University of Arkansas, near Walmart’s corporate headquarters, were testing their skills and reactions during practice using virtual reality.

The retailer tested the technology in 30 of its academies and found that workers who go through the training retain what they've learned better than those who haven't. The company is rolling out the training to all 200 of its academies by the end of the year so that more than 140,000 employees will have experienced the new training tool.

“Imagine you’re a new Walmart store manager and you’ve never experienced a Black Friday. Wouldn’t it be helpful to understand the dynamics of such a busy day before you ever had to actually manage your associates and customers through it?” Walmart says on its website. “VR allows associates to experience a lifelike store environment to experiment, learn and handle difficult situations without the need to re-create disruptive incidents or disturb the customers’ shopping experience.”

Virtual reality training still is in an early phase among employers, but likely will expand greatly over the next five years as it becomes more mainstream, said Justin Brusino, associate director of communities of practice for the Association for Talent Development, a trade group for training professionals.

Now, it’s mainly being used by large companies, Brusino said. UPS uses virtual reality headsets to train delivery drivers to spot road hazards. And BP can replicate jobs on an offshore drilling rig using interactive simulators at a training center in Houston.

Smaller companies “are still figuring out how exactly they would use it,” Brusino said.

Lewis, who has worked for Walmart for five years and was recently promoted to assistant manger in the Laurel store, joined about a half dozen other managers last week at the Glen Burnie academy, the only one in Maryland.

Jessica Walker, an academy training facilitator, guided Lewis through the situation, while the rest of the class watched it on a video. Walker asked how Lewis would respond to problems he identified.

“What I don’t see is any kind of orderly transition to the cash register,” Lewis said. “It would be much more helpful to have lines established, possibly somebody at the end of the line to monitor those lines and control the amount of activity that’s going on in this area.”

The training helps prepare new managers for situations they might face, said Jessica Blake, the Glen Burnie academy manager. Virtual reality has been used there since October, Blake said.

“It’s another hands-on activity,” Blake said. “They go away with a sense of understanding more of what their work environment is going to be.”

Things have changed since Blake went through managerial training more than a decade ago, when trainees were given a book to review.

Then, she said, “you would go on the floor and try to figure things out.”

Lewis said he found the virtual reality exercise helpful because the videos show recorded scenarios from stores and offer a 360-degree view.

“It allows us to pick up on the positives as well as the negatives in a training environment before we actually get out to our stores and actually see those things firsthand,” he said.

In another exercise, Alexis Woolford put on a headset and found herself in a virtual self-checkout area.

“What’s going on in the self-checkout area?” Walker asked Woolford, an assistant manager at Walmart in Columbia.

Woolford described how an associate was standing by, watching people check out from a distance, “that’s not what she’s supposed to do.”

As assistant manager, Woolford said she would remind the employee that she should be more engaged with customers, making sure they scanned all items and scanned them correctly.

“They should be watching,” Woolford said, “and making sure the customer is being taken care of.”

lorraine.mirabella@baltsun.com

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