On a blustery day in late October, I drove down a winding side road past grassy fields and hulking hydro towers around Walmart’s big distribution centre in Mississauga, Ont. My destination: a squat, no-name building at the back. A small Walmart-blue sign near an industrial metal door read “W.E.B.” On a bigger sign, a more hopeful note: “Anything is possible. Make it happen.”
This was it: the Walmart Ecommerce Building. Inside, employees clicked at keyboards while TV screens tracked the number of people at any given moment on Walmart.ca (some 700,000 a day visit). In charge of the operation: Simon Rodrigue, Walmart Canada’s senior vice-president of ecommerce. Rodrigue has a solid background in online retail. Twelve years ago, he was senior manager of ecommerce at Home Depot. He then spent time in the online business of Sears and Travelocity.
In 2012, Rodrigue joined Walmart and has been instrumental in developing its ecommerce offer. In the last few years Walmart has upgraded its website, added more food to the online merchandise mix, opened ecommerce-dedicated warehouses and, in October, signed a deal with 7-Eleven that allows Walmart’s online shoppers to pick up their orders at some of the convenience chain’s locations in Toronto. Also, last summer, Walmart began to sell fresh food online in Ottawa through click and collect.
Here are edited excerpts from my interview with Rodrigue.
How many people work in ecommerce at Walmart Canada?
There are over 250, including in Toronto and San Francisco, but more of them are working in omni-channel, so they have responsibilities for both stores and online. For instance, our team has dedicated ecommerce merchandising functions, but we also have omni-channel merchandising functions.
How do you ship to customers?
It varies. We have two warehouses in Canada for ecommerce: our hub in Mississauga and a warehouse we just opened in Calgary. They’ll ship the majority of products direct to the customer through Canada Post, UPS and regional partners. In Toronto, because of the volume of business and population density, we also have our own ﬂeet of trucks to deliver to people’s homes. And we ship direct from about 250 vendors. Then there’s the pickup component. We have a partnership with Canada Post, with 6,500 pickup locations; and we have 60 lockers at Walmart stores in Toronto and six in 7-Eleven stores in Toronto.
Why did you add the pickup lockers at your stores and at 7-Eleven?
This is one of the most surprising things that we’ve seen: customers want to choose when and where they pick up their items–at this location, at this time, on their way home, on a weekend. Waiting for a parcel at home isn’t as convenient. The lockers are really fast. You walk into a store, punch in a code and get your parcel. 7-Eleven has allowed us to service the urban areas where we don’t have a Walmart store. They’re within walking distance to people’s homes.
What do people get shipped to a locker?
Anything. If you look at the customer four years ago, it was about buying electronics online and general merchandise. What we’ve seen in the last 12 months, what has absolutely exploded for us, is the core weekly shop. People are buying their toilet paper, their health and beauty items and food at levels that, frankly, we didn’t expect would grow so fast.
Tell me about the launch of click and collect in Ottawa.
Let me take a little step back and talk about the adoption of food by consumers on our site. We started selling [packaged] food online about 24 months ago and, in the last year, we’ve found people have really started to buy more food than ever. They’re doing their pantry ﬁll.
But then people started telling us they wanted to do their complete shop and buy frozen food, produce and meats–all of the things that are really hard to do when you’re shipping a package to someone’s house. That led us down the path to: how do we help out new moms? How do we help out young families and the busy urban professional? And how do we make sure that we can give them access to Walmart products in a way they ﬁnd highly convenient?
And then there’s picking products. How do you ensure customers get the best fresh items?
We spend a lot of time hiring and training people so they understand, say, what shoppers want in an avocado; or what the marbling in good steak looks like. We’re training our pickers to pick the best food available. Staff go through multiple weeks of training before they are put on the floor to pick products.
What about substitutions?
One of the things we made the decision to do is, if we have to substitute a product for you, we will give you an equal or better quality product and, because it’s our fault, we will eat the cost of that product. Let’s say you wanted a six-pack of Pepsi and we’re out of stock. We’ll give you a 12-pack and you’re only paying for the six-pack. Why should we charge you for the 12-pack when all you wanted was the six-pack? It also forces us to get much better operationally.
Did you do customer focus groups ahead of the launch in Ottawa?
Yes. What surprised us: pickup won over delivery. Canada has always been a delivery market. Pickup hasn’t really existed. But Canadians are embracing it at a speed that we did not expect. They’re telling us it’s much more convenient than having to wait at the house for items to be delivered.