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How Walmart created a volunteer innovation army

Walmart store in Canada

A senior figure at American retail giant Walmart has outlined how the business has developed a global group of 1,600 employees to drive innovation within the business, who do so as volunteers in their own time.

Speaking at the Online Retailer Conference in Sydney on Thursday (25 July), Fareena Contractor, head of Walmart Innovation Community at Walmart Canada, said that innovation revolves around three core pillars:

  • Saving money
  • Saving time/improving efficiency
  • Making life better — usually for customers but also for staff and other stakeholders

And she said that innovation only comes through trial and error.

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“There’s a really big culture in Silicon Valley about celebrating failure — I like to call it celebrating learning,” she said.

According to its dedicated LinkedIn page, the Walmart Innovation Community (WIC) was founded in 2016 in the company’s Canadian division to drive positive change for the business.

It has since expanded to cover eight countries over three continents — North and South America as well as Asia — and more than 1,600 people.

“Our strength is in our numbers, and our diversity challenges us to ask questions, think critically and break away from tradition for tradition’s sake,” the page states.

Ms Contractor said that the community has become an inclusive and collaborative space for employees of any and all parts of the business to share problems and ideas for how to address them, using their respective skill sets, with a sense of ownership over the innovations they create.

She added that members of this community contribute on a voluntary basis, outside of their paid positions and working hours, demonstrating their commitment to helping secure not just their own future but also that of the business as a whole.

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Even failed experiments deliver valuable lessons

Innovation, Ms Contractor explained, is about trialling new concepts, and not every idea tested will prove successful — a point, she stressed, that comes down to setting realistic expectations when testing new concepts.

She outlined one example from the Walmart Innovation Community, which was the idea of 3-D printing ornaments for sale in-store.

“This experiment failed,” she said.

Ms Contractor said that the finished product was not something that Walmart could compete on, and said that the technology was not yet where they needed it to be.

Nevertheless, she said the business learnt some valuable insights in the process — not least of which was how the retailer could go about speeding up its route to market for new products.

The ornaments, she explained, went from concept stage to being in-store in just nine weeks, a considerable logistical achievement for a retailer of Walmart’s size and scale.

Other experiments to have come from the innovation community have proved more successful, Ms Contractor said. This included the introduction of radio frequency scanner guns at checkouts to reduce customer queuing times, which arose from interviews with customers in-store about their major pain points.

“Within 30 customer interviews, we figured out what the optimal outcome could look like,” she said.

Another example was that of scan and go technology to develop a new bagging device, to streamline the bagging of customer purchases, which has been rolled out in 200 stores so far.

Tips for driving innovation in business

Ms Contractor said that her key takeaways from developing and trialling new products and service offerings through the innovation community are:

  • Truly understand the underlying problem your user/customer is facing
  • Focus on progress, not on perfection
  • Deliver value early and often
  • Create a safe space for your people to test, make mistakes and learn

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Adam Zuchetti

Adam Zuchetti

Adam Zuchetti is the editor of My Business, and has steered the publication’s editorial direction since early 2016. 

The two-time Publish Awards finalist has an extensive journalistic career across business, property and finance, including a four-year stint in the UK. Email Adam at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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