Walmart’s new market disruptor? Drive-through

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AURORA | Perhaps no company is associated with standard brick-and-mortar retail operations the way Walmart is.

The retail giant has more than 6,000 stores around the world. Here in the United States, about 70 percent of people live within five miles of one.

But in an increasingly competitive retail scene — one where shoppers demand options beyond visiting a store or even having items shipped to their door step — the Arkansas-based retail giant is trying a new approach.

The company is planning a drive-through operation at Parker Road and East Quincy Avenue where customers can pick up items they bought from Walmart.com.

The standalone building — planned for an old gas station and used car lot on the west side of Parker Road — will have six lanes and encompass about 2,500 square feet, according to documents developers filed with the City of Aurora.

Ravi Jariawala, a spokesman for Walmart at the company’s Silicon Valley e-commerce headquarters, said the drive-through operations are one of several ideas Walmart is trying out as they look to craft a shopping experience that blends traditional retail with online options. The drive-through centers are a part of that, as are the company’s grocery pick-up options.

“We know customers lives are busy and they are looking not just for ways to save money, they are looking for ways to save time as well,” he said.

The company has offered customers the option of having online purchases shipped to a store for close to a decade, Jariawala said, and has been looking for ways to tweak their offerings.

According to the city documents, the drive-through center in Aurora would be one of the first of its kind and wouldn’t sell anything — only offering pick-up for items previously ordered online. It wasn’t clear from the documents when construction could start. Developers are asking the city to annex that chunk of land, which sits in unincorporated Arapahoe County, into the city of Aurora.

Jariawala said customers would pull up to the lanes and either call the store or enter their information on a touch screen kiosk. Then, workers would bring the items to their car.

“The whole thing is designed to be very, very streamlined for the customers,” he said.

With the ship-to-the-store option, retailers have the chance for customers to also make other purchases when they grab their item. The drive-through locations lose that, but Jariawala said the trade-off is enhanced convenience for customers who might not want to go to a typical store or to even  leave their car.

“Thats all about giving customers choice, empowering them to choose whats the best way for them to shop,” he said.

Walmart is making lots of changes that it says will keep it competitive in a changing retail landscape. It’s spending $2.7 billion on higher wages and other investments for its hourly workers over a two-year period. Walmart has maintained that lifting wages will mean happier workers who will better serve the customers. During a conference call with the media recently, Walmart executives said their employees are using their higher paychecks to spend more in the store.

Walmart is cleaning up the stores, and improving its merchandise, particularly fresh produce. Walmart is also trying to improve the experience of customers in its stores by better managing the number of registers open during peak traffic times.

Walmart’s chief financial officer Brett Briggs told reporters on the call that there was still this “era of uncertainty” with how its customers spend their dollars. But he said the consumer environment was consistent. That differs from what Target’s CEO Brian Cornell told the media in a call a day earlier. He highlighted a “volatile” consumer environment.

There was one red flag, however, and it arrived from the front lines in Walmart’s fight with one of its most serious threats: Amazon.com.

Global e-commerce sales rose just 7 percent for the first quarter, weaker than the 8 percent growth in the previous quarter, and far below the 20 percent increases seen less than two years ago.

CEO Doug McMillon said that level of growth is “too slow.” While online sales in the U.S were stronger than elsewhere, McMillon said they’re not where they should be.

Biggs told reporters that investments in the online business will take time to pay off. He conceded that Walmart is battling a perception that it does not have as many products for sale online as rivals. Walmart is now offering more than 10 million items online.

— The Associated Press contributed to this report.