Even people who find shopping fun don't particularly enjoy buying tires. For one thing, few of us know much about them, so the differences between brands and features can be a bit of a mystery. And for another, if you're tire shopping, it's usually because something has gone wrong, so those new radials are an unexpected and unwelcome expense.
Sam's Club wants to take some of the pain out of the process. The Walmart-owned (NYSE: WMT) warehouse club has deployed a tool it's calling "Sam's Garage" that will enable members to get "personalized tire recommendations in less than five minutes (previously a 30-minute experience)," according to a blog post.
That may sound like a small thing, but it reflects the chain's ongoing efforts to improve the customer experience, often with the aid of technology that also cuts its costs and helps it support its low pricing.
Sam's Club has been testing a variety of innovations. Images source: Sam's Club.
What can the Sam's Garage app do?
The new app runs on tablets wielded by store employees. With it, they can check on-site inventory, vehicle-industry data (including specifications, trims, and tire sizes), and years of member purchase history from all Sam's Club locations. Using that information, the associates will be able to rapidly figure out what choices best meet each customer's needs.
"Sam's Garage helps with more than just tires," according to the blog post. "Associates will be able to view the member's 'garage' to understand what has been purchased or when the car had its tires rotated last, all of which will help provide better service in the future. The app also helps identify the not only which tires but also which wipers and battery are needed for each member, with in-club inventory listed first."
This isn't a groundbreaking technological application -- but it is a smart way to streamline processes that previously were manual and time-consuming. Making the shopping experience easier in this way is not the type of thing warehouse chains have generally emphasized, so this is a bit of a departure for Sam's Club.
And beyond changing how at least some Americans buy tires, it's a small piece of what the chain's management intends to be a wider transformation.
What's next for Sam's?
For years, Sam's Club has struggled while its chief rival Costco (NASDAQ: COST) has been a steady retail winner. There's not really much difference between the two chains, but Costco has done a better job in evolving to meet changing consumer demands.
Sam's, however, has not been sitting back and conceding the race. Among other things, it has been testing a smaller-format store, and using it to experiment with technological solutions that are becoming commonplace elsewhere in the retail world -- but not so much in the warehouse niche. The 32,000-square-foot location -- about a third the size of a traditional Sam's Club -- offers delivery, curbside pickup, and "Scan & Go" technology that lets customers skip the checkout line.
Some of these options should eventually be rolled out to Sam's Clubs nationally. Those, along with innovations like Sam's Garage, could give more consumers a reason to consider the chain over the more-popular Costco.
Even within the low-frills warehouse model, there's value in making shopping more pleasant. Sam's Club's pivot toward that ideal won't be a quick process, but the steps it has taken so far should be encouraging to those who would like to see it get its business fully back on track.
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