Wal-Mart is putting its stores center stage this holiday.
In an effort to make its supercenters easier and more festive to shop, the world's largest retailer is calling on designated "holiday helpers," a better-staffed in-store pickup desk, and two times the number of product demonstrations.
There also will be more exclusive merchandise than it ever has had, and it's keeping its distance from one-off promotions in favor of 90-day rollbacks.
Wal-Mart outlined these holiday strategies from its Teterboro, New Jersey, store on Wednesday, following eight straight quarters of comparable sales gains for its U.S. division.
But while the mass merchant is entering the season with some wind at its back, the overall retail industry is grappling with an ongoing shift toward online shopping, which is seen continuing throughout the critical fourth quarter.
"We want to make it as easy as possible for them no matter how they want to shop," said Judith McKenna, Wal-Mart's chief operating officer.
To do that, Wal-Mart has added designated "holiday helpers" to direct shoppers to the shortest checkout lines, open additional registers during busy hours and run back to fetch forgotten items.
The number of helpers will vary by store volume and time of week, with extra workers being added on the weekends and in the final days before Christmas. Wal-Mart has not disclosed how many seasonal workers it's hired this year, but said recent investments into its workforce have in some cases allowed it to simply provide additional hours to existing employees. Holiday helpers are part of Wal-Mart's investment to beef up staffing at the front of its stores, McKenna said.
The company is also adding extra support for in-store pickup of online orders, including a dedicated manager in every store. It's repainted these services counters a bright orange, to make them easier to locate. Making this service run smoothly will be critical for Wal-Mart this season, as it's added tens of thousands of items for same-day pickup. That could create a bottleneck if orders aren't filled when customers arrive.
Added demand for the service will likely come from Wal-Mart's decision to maintain its minimum $50 spending requirement to receive free shipping. The world's largest retailer sat out this promotion last year, despite competitors Target and Best Buy offering it throughout the season. Wal-Mart says that most of its online orders meet the $50 minimum spending requirement, so maintaining that threshold doesn't put it at a disadvantage.
Analysts last year credited Target's decision to provide free shipping on all orders as one reason its digital sales rose 34 percent. Wal-Mart's online revenue climbed 8 percent during the same quarter, albeit from a larger base. Target and Best Buy are both repeating their free shipping promotion this holiday.
For its part, Wal-Mart has expanded the number of items on its website from roughly 8 million at the beginning of the year, to some 20 million. Its online operations will not yet include any influence from Jet.com, which it acquired in September.
Another essential part of Wal-Mart's holiday strategy is ramping up the in-store experience. That means doubling the number of product demonstrations to 150,000, bringing in visits from Santa Claus and setting up new selfie booths.
"It just engages people in a different way," Chief Merchandising Officer Steve Bratspies said. "It creates that little bit of extra excitement."
Like Target, which at 1,800 is offering the most exclusive toys it ever has, Wal-Mart this year is selling a larger number of items that can't be found anywhere else. That includes 400 toys, such as its $398 motorized Disney Princess Carriage. That item has been so popular that the retailer has already had to order more, Bratspies said.