This Puerto Rico executive is leading the tech makeover at South Florida’s Walmarts

Iliana Sanchez, center, and her fellow Walmart employees stock the shelves at a Miami store on February 19, 2015.
Iliana Sanchez, center, and her fellow Walmart employees stock the shelves at a Miami store on February 19, 2015. Getty Images

Retail’s technological revolution is ushering in an era of enhancements — robotic, in some cases — for a stalwart of the industry: Walmart.

The company is testing shelf-scanning robots that can detect whether supplies are running low in aisles or if items are mislabeled or misplaced. Walmart has also started debuting “Pickup Towers,” 16-foot-tall vending machines that release items ordered online and designated for in-store pickup. Online Grocery Pickup allows customers to order their groceries online and then pick them up in store — without getting out of the car. Employees do the grocery shopping for customers and then bring the items to their vehicle.

The check-in screen for Walmart’s new pickup towers. Customers scan a barcode of their purchase receipt and the machine releases the item. Walmart

While the robots are still a ways off for South Florida, the towers and grocery pickup are already debuting in stores around the region. Overseeing the growth is Jaime Fernandez, the new general manager for Walmart in South Florida, who brings his experience with Walmart in Puerto Rico, Procter & Gamble and Clorox.

Fernandez oversees more than 40,000 people working in 90 stores in the region, from Miami to the Sarasota/Bradenton area on the west coast and Port St. Lucie on the east coast. Fernandez, who previously led the Puerto Rican operation as regional general manager, moved to Miami in March. His focus: Bring Walmart’s innovations to South Florida, he said.

“Moving forward, online is going to continue to grow exponentially, so our mission is really, ‘How do you continue to provide a combination of the physical and digital experience?’ ” Fernandez said.

So far, Walmart has been able to hold its own despite major moves by its online competitors, including Amazon, which acquired Whole Foods for $13.7 billion in June. At least price-wise, Walmart is closing the price gap with Amazon, offering prices only about 3 percent more expensive than Amazon on average, according to an October report from Profitero, an e-commerce analytics company.

Jaime Fernandez, the new South Florida general manager for Walmart. Joe Colon Walmart

The company is also trying to use its physical presence to entice customers to come to the store, while offering the convenience of an online experience, Fernandez said.

“One of the key pieces that Walmart is trying to leverage is utilizing our 4,500 stores and our boxes to provide an enhanced experience for the customer through the online side of it,” Fernandez said.

Key parts of the mission are the Pickup Towers, now available in four stores in South Florida, including a store on Coral Way and in Miami Gardens. Two stores in Coral Springs and one in Coconut Creek are scheduled to debut Pickup Towers this month. About 30 South Florida stores have the online grocery feature.

In an interview with the Miami Herald, Fernandez discussed the future of the industry, the South Florida retail landscape and the upcoming holiday season.

Q. What did you enjoy most about your time in Puerto Rico, and how did that experience prepare you for the move to Miami?

A. I enjoyed learning about the island’s rich culture and how it was present in our stores. There are small differences across municipalities, so our team would adapt our marketing and products for each region. Puerto Ricans are very sociable, fun and joyful people, so our stores were enjoyable workplaces.

Spending time across the stores and getting to know our 11,000 associates on the island prepared me to oversee the 90 supercenters and 40,000 people working in South Florida. Puerto Rico is naturally beautiful and getting the chance to travel within the island was a pleasure.

Q. Where do the South Florida and Puerto Rican shopper differ most?

A. Our South Florida stores serve one of the most culturally diverse populations in the country, home to people from Latin America, the Caribbean, and Europe.

In contrast, our stores in Puerto Rico are really focused on catering to the everyday needs of Puerto Ricans. For instance, a family in Miami or Fort Lauderdale may visit a Supercenter to buy groceries, school supplies, clothing and something in electronics all in one trip. In Puerto Rico, that same family may visit their local Supercenter for milk and eggs, then come back in a day or two for bread or produce.

Our South Florida associates are also more diverse, representing 75 different nationalities.

Q. Since Hurricane Maria, what challenges do you foresee moving forward for the retail industry on the island?

A. My primary focus has been on South Florida, but many different facets of the company are lending support to recovery efforts on the island. Walmart has committed $36 million to relief efforts this hurricane season. More than $5 million of that total is designated for helping Puerto Rico, including our sponsorship of the Somos Live concert that took place in Miami.

There are many challenges on the island, with power outages being the chief problem. Nearly 70 percent of households are without power, so it’s going to be a difficult holiday season. Fortunately, Puerto Ricans are resilient and resourceful people who will come out stronger when the island returns to normal.

Walmart associates gather supplies to help people affected by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. Walmart

Q. Retail is changing rapidly, too. What excites you most about the future of the industry as a whole?

A. Retail, like many industries, is evolving through advances in technology.

We find that Walmart customers still put the most weight on cost and convenience when making their purchasing decisions, so we are using innovation to improve the shopping experience while keeping everyday prices low.

I’m excited about our investments in and creating more synergy between our digital platforms and physical stores with features like our new Pickup Towers, which allow customers to place their orders online and retrieve their items in-store within a matter of seconds. They’re essentially 16-foot-tall, high-tech vending machines that are unlike anything else in retail today.

Q. How do you think the new technology Walmart is working on, between the aisle robots and the pickup towers, will keep it in the digital-age battle?

A. Winning customers and earning their loyalty over time comes down to delivering on our dual commitment to convenience and low prices.

This means staying innovative, which is at the core of Walmart’s corporate mission dating back to our earliest store formats, the addition of grocery in our supercenters, and our investments in

New technology can be an important piece in that equation when it means creating more efficiency and making our customers’ lives a little easier. Pickup Towers are the latest example of Walmart’s commitment to digital acceleration and innovation, as they allow customers to save time by shopping however, whenever, wherever they want.

Competing with Amazon-Whole Foods
This Tuesday, May 30, 2017, photo shows a 24-hour grocery pickup location at a Walmart in Oklahoma City. Amazon’s $13.7 billion acquisition of Whole Foods signals a massive bet that people will opt more for the convenience of online orders and delivery or in-store pickup, putting even more pressure on the already highly competitive industry. Walmart, Kroger and others were already stepping up their efforts in delivery and in-store pickup of online orders. Sue Ogrocki AP

Q. How do you find a middle ground between offering the brick and mortar store experience and incorporating new features that customers value from online shopping?

A. Walmart’s investments in new technology, coupled with our significant physical presence in South Florida and across the U.S., is a powerful combination.

Anytime we can create a seamless intersection between the digital and in-store shopping experience, we have an opportunity to save our customers time and make their lives more convenient.

Our Online Grocery Pickup service, which allows customers to order groceries online or through our app and pick up their items at our store without ever getting out of the car, is a great example of that seamlessness. This service has become incredibly popular, and we plan to double the number of stores where it’s available to a combined 2,000 locations nationwide by the end of 2018. Walmart also launched Walmart Pay, a fast, easy and secure way for customers to pay with their smartphones in Walmart stores.

Q. How do you keep the customer experience top notch in-store?

A. Walmart is embarking on a two-year, $11 billion campaign to improve the in-store shopping experience for our customers.

This commitment includes store remodels, new signage that makes it easier to navigate our aisles, and the addition and expansion of electronics, bakery, produce and garden departments at many stores.

Here in South Florida, we’ve already remodeled 15 stores this year with more to come. At the same time, we’re making investments in our people through the launch of Walmart Academies where our associates receive continued training in customer service and how to use in-store technology with an eye toward career growth.

Q. Looking ahead, how are you preparing for this holiday season and how do you foresee it will be different from seasons past?

A. We are set with holiday merchandise, including electronics, toys and gifts. We’ve set up additional customer teams to help with incremental traffic we expect during the holiday season.

For example, we designate teams of associates to help customers find the merchandise they need and ensure they can check out as fast as possible.

One key difference this year is that we are offering our part-time associates the opportunity to work 40 hours per week during the holiday rush. I foresee more customers shopping on and taking advantage of our home delivery and in-store pickup options.

By the time Black Friday rolls around on Nov. 24, we will have three additional stores outfitted with Pickup Towers in South Florida.

Chabeli Herrera: 305-376-3730, @ChabeliH

Jaime Fernandez

Job title: Regional General Manager, South Florida for Walmart

Experience: Ten years at Walmart, including Puerto Rico, 13 years at Procter & Gamble, four years with The Clorox Company and three years as an entrepreneur.

Education: Bachelor’s in business administration and a major in finance from Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Age: 51

Personal: Live in Brickell with my girlfriend and children

Hobbies: Exercise, water sports, tennis and cooking.