Walmart's 'super shoppers' are up against the clock to fulfill curbside orders

RaeLynn Ricarte

Brandon Curtsinger is on a mission — he has 25 minutes to collect frozen or refrigerated foods ordered online by Walmart customers and get them bagged and into a cold storage area to await curbside pickup.

State regulations require these foods to be back in a freezer or refrigerator within one hour, but Walmart employees beat that timeline, said Curtsinger, who came from a distribution center to the Colville store about a year ago.

“I like the pace, it keeps me motivated to work hard,” he said, using a handheld device to locate each item via allocation markers at the base of freezer doors and refrigerated bins.

Sometimes the item isn't exactly where the computer tells him it will be, so he has to search nearby shelves to find it, which costs valuable seconds. But mostly, the system is reliable and Curtsinger can easily shop for six customers at once, placing their items in bins on a cart that are labelled with their assigned number. Along the way, he takes time to check all expiration dates to ensure the customer will have maximum storage time.

“This is a great service for a lot of people,” said Curtsinger of why so much care is taken in the shopping process.

He can also be slowed slightly by finding that an item is no longer available. When that happens, Curtsinger notes that fact in the computer and finding a substitute becomes the responsibility of Becky Baumgardner, manager over digital commerce. She is tasked with picking out a replacement product, which then has to be approved by the customer. The goal is to get an item as close as possible to the original order, she said.

“We set pretty high standards for ourselves back here,” Baumgardner said of the 35 members of her team who each average about 23,000 steps per shift.

Although the expectation is that Curtsinger will bag 100 items within his 25 minutes of shopping time, he is one of the fastest “pickers” and regularly scores 150 items within that timeline. He makes it a practice to never roll his cart back to the online grocery storeroom to drop off bins without having every order filled. If he cannot make that goal, he has to head out with newly labelled bins to pick up what he missed.

“Frozen and refrigerated foods are the only ones with a hard stop time on it,” he explains.

Pickers are required to slow down in produce because only the freshest fruits and vegetables are bagged. The goal is to not have them ripen for a couple of days after pickup to give the customer more options for preparation.
Meats also necessitate more time because it is difficult to discern customer preferences, so pickers go for cuts with the least amount of marbling and fat. Newbies on the team are trained in dry foods because these are not perishable, so they can take more time if necessary, said Baumgardner.

At the same time that Curtsinger gathers refrigerated and frozen products, four other workers are also shopping for the same order. The team spreads out over different departments and relies on their handheld units to map out the best route for speed.

Although the vast majority of online orders are for groceries, customers can also get clothing, hygiene items and a variety of household goods on a limited basis. Scott Peterson, general manager of the Colville store, said Walmart also offers online delivery in metro areas for an additional charge, but that is not yet available in more remote locations.

“Brick and mortar stores will always exist but eventually they will be more for fulfillment shopping,” he said.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Baumgardner said her team had to find every possible way to streamline efficiencies because the client count rose dramatically. From 10 workers filling about 30 online orders per day in early 2019 to a team that is triple the size processing nearly 200 per day — and more people sign up every month. Peterson is proud of the work being done by Baumgardner and her crew, which also includes “dispensers” who wheel carts full of goods out to vehicles and then offload them. The most people-oriented employees fulfill this task.

“It's all about customer service and making sure we do it right,” he said. “If we don't give customers a good experience, they won't come back.”

Here's how the online shopping program works:

• A customer installs the Walmart app on a smartphone and then signs up for the grocery pickup service. Once at least $35 of items are placed in the digital cart, that person selects an available time and date to arrive at the curb (the pickup time can be no sooner than three hours after the order is placed). A hold for the amount of money owing is placed on the customer's bank account.

• There is a two-hour window for the customer to add or delete items from the queue before it is assigned a number and becomes the responsibility of Baumgardner's team.

• When the order has been filled, the customer is sent an email and “push” alert that everything is good to go. The individual is then asked to click a “check in” link to let Walmart know when they will arrive. The rush begins inside to round up bins for the order from the different sections of the storeroom. Traffic can get heavy during this process so there are “lanes” for carts to travel to avoid collisions.

• Upon arrival, the customer receives a another message asking what space number he or she is parked in. Within 90 seconds, the dispenser shows up with the cart, double-checks to be sure the order is being given to the rightful person and then loads the bags into the vehicle.

When there are substitutions, the customer has been provided online with the opportunity to approve or disapprove the alternate choices. They are also asked if they accept replacements before the bags are loaded into their vehicle. The charge for the order is then adjusted to reflect the actual amount spent and a receipt emailed to the customer.

“Everything is selected the same day as the pickup,” said Baumgardner.

The hours to pick up online orders are 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day. Although the digital commerce team is divided each shift into pickers and distributors, everyone dives in to help with either task when things get busy. If the number of orders exceeds the availability of the team, other sales associates are called in to help — and Peterson even loads groceries.

“I don't ask anyone to do what I'm not willing to do,” he said. “And I can dispense because it's pretty difficult to screw that up.”

There is no predicting when orders will come in, so down time is spent sanitizing carts and storage areas, and fitting bins with grocery bags to get ready for the next wave of shopping, says Baumgardner. Peterson said not only is her team quick to help each other, they have a good time along the way.

“They are great, they really are,” he said. “There's a lot of technology involved, but you have to have the right people and they are proud of what they do, and they do it very well.”

In February, he said there will be an expansion of the online grocery area because it takes an incredible amount of space to store orders and Walmart wants to keep up with the growing demand. Peterson said there are a couple of other options to speed up shopping trips for people coming into the store:

• The “scan and go” app can be loaded onto a smartphone to add up the cost of items and then pay via a bank or credit card before arriving at the self-checkout stand to bag selections.

• Customers can also type the name of an item into a smart phone and then follow a digital map to the right aisle. There are 130,000 products in the store, so sometimes people need a little help to navigate 192,000 square feet of floor space, said Peterson.

He has been at the helm of the Walmart store for six years. He said the company stays on top of its innovation game to make sure that customers are being provided with the shopping experience that best suits their needs, said Peterson.

“We might not be the cheapest on everything but, as a whole, we are going to give you the best deal,” he said.