Think Walmart’s customer service has improved? Thank their training academies

Walmart is getting serious about your in-store shopping experience.

After headlines in recent years about poorly stocked stores and nonexistent help, the world’s largest retailer has invested $2.7 billion in wages and training for employees.

Consider it their change-or-die full-court press against our state’s Amazon.

For Washington state, this means three Walmart Academies, with the closest for now at its Bonney Lake store with its first graduating class this week. Other sites are in Poulsbo and Spokane.

The goal is to have 200 nationwide by the end of the year; its 100th opened in April in Edmond, Oklahoma.

Of course, the academies have iPads and training information available on the Walmart cloud, and an Apple TV to show training programs.

And, perhaps someday soon, all the Walmart classrooms will include training enhanced by virtual reality, simulating everything from situations in the produce aisle to Black Friday.

Walmart’s boss says this tech-savvy focus on customer service is working.

“These investments are paying off for our customers through cleaner stores, friendlier service and faster check-out times,” president and CEO Doug McMillon said in an April news release.

Now the headlines are about how Walmart’s turning around as a retailer, starting with the academies.

The company expects to have 225,000 workers go through the academies nationwide by the end of 2017.

The academies serve workers drawn from about two-dozen stores in each particular region — “typically no more than an hour’s drive from an associate’s home,” Erica Jones, senior Walmart corporate communications manager, told The News Tribune in an interview Tuesday.

Those participating include front-line hourly supervisors, department managers and assistant managers, with classes ranging from 15 to 30 students.

Once they finish academy training that focuses on core retail, leadership and communicating with customers, workers move on to the actual retail floor for the ultimate reality experience — dealing with customers.

“Before, training came from institutional knowledge passed on through associates,” said Jones, and information could vary from store to store. “Now, we can offer more consistency in the knowledge, so shoppers have a more consistent experience.”

Walmart isn’t just letting it go at that. The retailer also sports a culinary and innovation center at its home base in Bentonville, Arkansas, finding ways to source locally for ingredients in packaged foods.

Take that, Whole Foods.

To appeal to millennials, it’s also bringing back forgotten brands, such as Zima (the clear-beerlike beverage) and Oreo-O’s cereal.

And, move over Amazon Fresh, Walmart’s is offering online fresh grocery deliveries to about half of the population, primarily on the East Coast and in the Midwest (and not Tacoma or Olympia as of a Wednesday check of ZIP codes).

Stay tuned.

Debbie Cockrell: 253-597-8364, @Debbie_Cockrell