Walmart Academy Facilitator DJ Ddungu uses a VR headset to watch Walmart during the holidays.
Walmart Academy Facilitator DJ Ddungu uses a VR headset to train for the holiday season. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Supervisor DJ Ddungu stood engrossed in the Walmart holiday rush – watching as customers stuffed their carts with toys, gadgets, and home appliances. A store employee collected paper wristbands from them as they redeemed their Black Friday deals.

Ddungu spotted a few pieces of trash strewn about in the store but couldn’t communicate with the workers in the store. That’s because he saw these scenes in virtual reality at a Walmart training academy in Southwest San Antonio.

Black Friday is Walmart’s Super Bowl, and, much like the NFL, the company is replicating real-life scenarios in virtual reality training.

Robert Segovia, an academy facilitator who manned the control panel and initiated the three-to-five-minute VR training sessions, said this new training tool give employees a sense of what to expect.

“For something like Black Friday or holiday rush, we can’t recreate that in the store,” Segovia said. “We can’t bring thousands of customers in and have this hectic and overwhelming event. So the VR allows us to do that. It shows [employees] what it’s really going to look like and feel like.”

This year, Walmart is delivering VR headsets to all of its stores in preparation for the holiday rush. The virtual-reality experience is designed to give employees a taste of Black Friday madness – the crowds, the chaos – before they encounter it in real life. Plastic film and other debris often litter the store during the frantic event, and customer exchanges can be uncivil.

During the course of the VR experience, Ddungu said he forgot he was in the academy building. Luckily, a chair is provided as a “home base” so that trainees don’t get so lost in the experience that they bump into things in their actual environment.

“It feels like I’m actually there,” Ddungu said as he scanned his virtual environment during a holiday event training. A 360-degree camera captured video for the VR training two years ago.

Ddungu said he wants his associates to be ready for the holiday rush, accessible to answer customer questions, and also to provide them with a positive experience. He said he believes the immersive experience will help employees respond to spills, spot trash that accumulates in the store, manage lines, and lessen the chaos of the shopping frenzy.

Although the consumer market has yet to fully embrace virtual reality, it is increasingly becoming a tool for employers – from sports teams to retail stores – to train their staff.

In October, Walmart began shipping 17,000 Oculus Go VR headsets to its stores in hopes of providing VR training to every associate ahead of Black Friday. The company has partnered with VR software developer STRIVR to create 45 training sessions to teach delicatessen staff behind-the-counter service, automotive department staff the basics of working in the service bay, and other associates the best way to handle online grocery pickup. STRIVR is the company that develops VR training for NFL teams such as the Dallas Cowboys and Arizona Cardinals.

VR training provides more experiential learning, according to Walmart officials. Its employees who watch VR learning modules retain information better, earning test scores 10-15 percent higher than their peers who had not experienced the training, according to the company.

For Walmart’s holiday rush rookies, experiencing Black Friday via virtual reality might just help them win their Super Bowl.

JJ Velasquez was a columnist, former editor and reporter at the San Antonio Report.