In its ongoing effort to compete with Amazon.com, Wal-Mart announced a new way of handling in-store returns of online purchases that it claims could shrink the processing time to 35 seconds. Starting next month, Mobile Express Returns will enable consumers to begin a return process on Wal-Mart’s app before bringing the item in question to any of its 4,700 stores. In-store, customers can scan a barcode with a smartphone and hand off the returned items at a dedicated express lane at the customer service desk, in what a Wal-Mart executive said could take barely more than half a minute, far less than the few it takes now. The new program would also speed up the time it takes for a customer to get a refund, Wal-Mart said. The express lanes already exist, having been put in place earlier this year to speed up service for its pharmacy and money service customers. Mobile Express Returns will handle items sold and shipped by Walmart.com (excluding third-party sales on its online marketplace), and the retailer plans to add items bought in-store to the service early next year.
Total Retail’s Take: Wal-Mart, you win this round. This service, which will not only improve customer service and endear customers to the chain (who likes to spend time in the return line?), will also help bridge the gap between Wal-Mart’s online and offline businesses. Wal-Mart's archrival Amazon has wasted no time in setting up a similar system with its new retail subsidiary Whole Foods, which started accepting Amazon returns last month. Amazon also has started a program with Kohl’s to accept returns. And while this is just the start of a physical return network for Amazon, it's likely to expand it if popular with customers. An omnichannel returns service will also drive customers into Wal-Mart's physical stores, not just to return items, but to pick up other products as well.