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Wal-Mart promises 30-second returns in stores, as Amazon tries to catch up

  • Wal-Mart will launch Mobile Express Returns in November.
  • The program hopes to ease returning items to stores.
  • A two-step process will initially work for only those items sold and shipped by Walmart.com.
  • "By leveraging our physical stores and the Walmart app, we're changing the returns game in ways that only Walmart can do," said Wal-Mart's Daniel Eckert.

Making a return at Wal-Mart used to take roughly five minutes. But the discount retailer is on a mission to slash that to 30 seconds, said Daniel Eckert, senior vice president of Wal-Mart Services and Digital Acceleration.

The company will take its first step in early November – when it rolls out Wal-Mart's Mobile Express Returns, for items sold and shipped by Walmart.com. Store purchases should be integrated into the system by early 2018.

"We know that returning an item and waiting for a refund, especially for a product purchased online, isn't always seamless, so we've completely transformed the process for our customers – whether they are shopping in stores or at Walmart.com," Eckert said in prepared remarks.

Shoppers often consider returning unwanted or defective purchases to stores to be a hassle. And unfortunately, it's often unavoidable. At least 30 percent of all products ordered online are returned, compared to an average of 9 percent of in-store purchases, according to online retail consultant Invesp.

For Wal-Mart's online shoppers, making a return will soon require just two steps. Customers will start the returns process on their phones, using Wal-Mart's app before heading to the store. Then, using a Mobile Express Lane at a Wal-Mart store, they will scan a QR code, which will prompt a refund to be credited to a shopper's payment account.

Walmart Mobile Express returns.
Source: Walmart
Walmart Mobile Express returns.

Earlier this year, Wal-Mart announced it would be rolling out the so-called Express Lanes at most of its stores, and by late August that undertaking was complete.

The lanes were created specifically for Wal-Mart's Pharmacy and Money Service customers — those that fill their prescriptions at Wal-Mart, and those that transfer money at the retailer's stores.

Now, the lanes will also be used to handle returns.

Starting in December, shoppers will also have a unique option for certain items, like shampoo, household cleaning supplies and cosmetics. Through the Wal-Mart app, a shopper may receive an instant refund on some purchases without having to return anything to the store. Other items — those that stores can't reuse once they've been opened or damaged — are planned to be added to this particular offering over time.

When asked how Wal-Mart will prevent customers abusing the new "keep it" option, Eckert said on a call with the media that the company has invested in technology to make sure the service isn't taken advantage of.

To be sure, none of Wal-Mart's retail peers have made a similar promise — receive a refund without bringing an item back — of such a large scale.

"We recognize time has become the new currency in retail, as much as saving money," Eckert said on the call. "We felt [Mobile Express Returns] was a growing expectation we needed to address, and do it well."

"By leveraging our physical stores and the Walmart app, we're changing the returns game in ways that only Walmart can do," Eckert added in prepared remarks.

It's true, e-commerce players like Amazon don't have as vast a physical footprint as retailers like Wal-Mart, Target and Costco today.

Nonetheless, Amazon is making strides to grow its brick-and-mortar presence so that customers have more places readily available to them to make returns. Kohl's, for example, has agreed to open its doors to Amazon, promising to fulfill the internet giant's returns at more than 80 of Kohl's department stores.

Amazon has also started processing returns at Whole Foods stores across the U.S., after it acquired the grocery chain in August.

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