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In E-commerce Race, Walmart Eyes Its Workforce and Delivery Tech

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Walmart’s move to make more of its workers full time signals the retailer’s workforce strategy as it builds a competitive e-commerce business. To that end, the retailer also said Thursday that it is investing in Cruise, a San Francisco-based self-driving car company.

The retailer’s exercise to build its e-commerce business follows its projection in February that its e-commerce revenue will surpass $100 billion in the next two years. On Wednesday, Walmart said it plans to make more of its U.S. employees full time, resulting in roughly two-thirds of its U.S. hourly workforce becoming full time over the next year. Full-time roles, in addition to offering employment benefits, also come with predictable schedules, the company noted. The retailer’s announcement tied the move to its shifting operations to cater to delivery and order fulfillment.

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“Having full-time associates has never been more important than it is right now,” Drew Holler, senior vice president of Walmart U.S. People Operations, said in a post. “Our growing pickup and delivery business calls for us to create more full-time job opportunities as our stores increasingly operate as both fulfillment centers and retail spaces.”

The move follows some of Walmart’s other recent announcements that have sought to signal an emphasis on its workforce. In its investor meeting in February, the retailer said it was increasing pay for some 425,000 additional workers, a wage increase the company said would effectively mean that half its U.S. hourly workers would be paid $15-an-hour or more. Walmart has roughly 1.4 million employees in the U.S. But the retailer’s lowest minimum wage, which applies to a number of other roles, is still $11 an hour.

Longtime Walmart employee Cynthia Murray, a member of the worker group United for Respect, issued a statement describing the move as a positive effort, but spotlighted those still left behind.

“We started our fight marching with the banner ‘$15 and full time’ and today Walmart is finally taking a step in the right direction for working people like me, who need a consistent schedule to provide for their families,” she said.

“And while I’m encouraged that more associates will have full-time status, the nation’s largest private employer must take more actions to fully respect us, the retail associates who are the backbone of the company,” she added. “Walmart trails their competitors on levels of full-time staffing and starting salaries, which has a disproportionate impact on Black and brown associates.”

Walmart’s move may also indicate a shift in the kind of demand it’s seeing from customers, as spending patterns have started to stabilize from the kind of panic-induced spree-buying it and other big-box retailers saw last year when they were among the only ones consistently open during the pandemic.

“Part of the use of part-time workers was related to optimizing flexibility at a time when there was a lot of uncertainty,” said Marianne Wanamaker, an associate professor of economics at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. “And my guess is the uncertainty surrounding spending patterns is starting to recede,” she added. “And so they feel like they can make better decisions about [the number of] their full-time staff.”

Walmart’s overtures to workers may also be a sign of a tighter labor market, despite ongoing unemployment as the pandemic extends, as workers fear high-contact jobs, Wanamaker and other experts said.

“A tightening job market is forcing Walmart to create ‘careers’ for its employees,’” said Danko Turcic, associate professor of operations and supply chain management at the University of California, Riverside. “They must believe that it will help them recruit and retain employees in the current climate,” he added. “For me, the notable thing is that Walmart is trying to take on Amazon while Target is beginning to lag.”

On Thursday, Walmart U.S. president John Furner also addressed the company’s investment in Cruise, the self-driving car company, describing it as an asset at a time when the company is fine-tuning its delivery mechanisms and striving to cut emissions by 2040.

“As delivery has become a staple in our customers’ lives, we’re focused on growing our last mile ecosystem in a way that’s beneficial for everyone — customers, business and the planet,” he wrote in a post. “With their all-electric fleet powered by 100 percent renewable energy, Cruise is a natural partner as we work to take collective action on climate change.”