Walmart launches Mobile Express Returns to refund or exchange online items in physical stores

Ingrid Lunden

As Walmart continues to build out its e-commerce business to rival Amazon's, its latest development will build on some of the retail giant's most established operations: Walmart is launching a new in-store returns service called Mobile Express Returns.

People who purchase items online and then need to return them can do so by logging them on the Walmart app, generating a QR code for the transaction, and then walking into a physical Walmart store to return or exchange the items quickly. In certain cases such as orders with bulky items, customers can simply keep them and still get a refund, a program it referred to as "keep it" in an interview last week.

Mobile Express Returns is due to launch in November of this year and get rolled out to all of Walmart's 4,700 stores in the U.S. The plan is to consider how to expand the same returns service to cover third-party sellers on Walmart.com's online marketplace. But Walmart has confirmed to me that there are "no plans" to add Jet.com, an Amazon-style marketplace Walmart acquired for $3 billion last year, to that service.

Mobile Express Returns is not the first time that Walmart has tried to accept returns for online items in stores, but Daniel Eckert, SVP, WalmartServices and Digital Acceleration, Walmart U.S., said that this will be a new system that will work much faster.

"Time has become the new currency in retail as much as saving money," he said in a call with journalists ahead of today. "It’s thinking about how we can create a more seamless shopping experience... When something is bought online and attempted to be returned in the store, customers ... expect [that they] can come back to the store and return it. We didn’t appreciate how sophisticated we had to be."

Walmart has embarked on dozens of new services and other moves in the last year or so to speed up the shopping experience for online shoppers.

They have included tests with smart-lock maker August to bring groceries and other items into your home; using Uber to deliver groceries; and getting in-store staff to make deliveries. 

It has also launched various services to directly go after Amazon's fast-delivery and lower-price models: discounts on a million goods (but only if you pick them up in-store), and free two-day shipping for orders over $35, as well as skipping the queue in stores for pharmacy and money pick-ups when buying with the app.

And of course there have been the acquisitions of numerous digital-first startups to pick up the pace and target new customers: for example, Jet.com and most recently Parcel for delivery services. 

The tech behind Walmart Pay, the company's mobile payment offering, in fact, was the basis for this latest product to speed up in-store returns.

Bridging the connection between Walmart's online and offline businesses makes a lot of sense. Its arch-rival Amazon has wasted no time in setting up a similar system with its new retail subsidiary Whole Foods, which started accepting Amazon returns last month. Amazon also works with Khol's to accept returns. And while this is just the start of a physical return network for Amazon, Amazon is likely to expand it if it proves popular.

The new service is useful for Walmart in another way: it will serve as a new route to getting people into the physical stores to shop more overall -- not just to exchange items, but to pick up other products you might need (or get lured into buying those you may actually not need, as is often the case for me).

And the same goes for the app: if you are using the app to make a return, there is a chance Walmart can get you to use it to buy something more.

We asked, and Walmart told us that it would not detail how it will monitor "keep it" returns for fraud.

"We will be using technology to help us spot irregular behavior," a spokesperson said. "We aren’t able to share any additional details for competitive reasons." I'm guessing that people will be monitored if they make repeat return requests as part of it.