By Phil Wahba
November 1, 2017

Looking to shed its image as a no-frills retailer, Walmart (wmt) is planning to hold thousands of holiday season parties at its stores and give customers a reason to shop there rather than with rivals.

The discount chain, eyeing a repeat of its successful holiday quarter last year when it handily bested rivals like Target (tgt) and Kohl’s (kss), said that a key piece of its Christmas period strategy would be to hold 20,000 holiday parties at its 4,700 stores as well as ramp up in-store product demonstrations. The first such series of parties will focus on toys and take place on November 4. Then later in the shopping season, Walmart will hold parties that focus on entertaining on Dec 2. followed by in-store events on Dec. 16 that will zero in on popular gift ideas. The toy party, for instance, will let kids play with some toys and take pictures with Santa Claus.

What’s more, Walmart will bring back in greater numbers the dedicated staff it lined up last year tasked with helping shoppers retrieve online orders or speed up checkout. Those workers, whom Walmart dubs “Holiday Helpers,” will be visible in reindeer hats, in addition to the blue and yellow vests Walmart workers wear to make them identifiable. Those store workers have been part of Walmart’s efforts to raise its customer service scores and generate more store traffic.

Photo by Marc F. Henning

In what will be a big test of Walmart’s leaner inventory approach, the company plans to be well stocked during the holidays, lest it hand over business to rivals. “We’ll have deep availability of top items and our store shelves will be stocked,” Walmart U.S. Chief Merchant Steve Bratspies told reporters on a conference call.

In its most recent quarter, visits to Walmart’s namesake U.S. stores rose 1.3% for an 13th straight quarter of growth, a crucial achievement in competing with Amazon.com (amzn) and a trend Walmart needs to continue. The results show that Walmart’s massive investments in features like grocery curbside pickup, in-store order retrieval, its own mobile payment app and the expansion of its online assortment are spurring shoppers to come into stores.

And during the holiday season, which begins in earnest on Wednesday, Walmart plans to leverage those investments. The company said its online assortment is three times greater than it was last year. It will offer shoppers discounts if they come to a store to pick up an online order, a feature it has introduced since the 2016 Christmas period. The chain is also introducing a number of brands it has never carried before, such as Yankee Candle, KitchenAid, and Cuisinart, in what could be a new challenge for department stores like Macy’s, Kohl’s and J.C. Penney. (jcp) Online, higher end items like Bose electronics will be offered. (It will carry Bose in a few select stores as well.)

The company said it would cut the prices on many more products this year, a practice called “rollbacks” in Walmart speak.

But one area where Walmart shopper won’t get a break is free shipping. As it did last year, Walmart is bucking the trend of rivals like Target and Best Buy (bby) which are waiving the shipping fee regardless of order size, and maintaining a $35 minimum to qualify for free two-day delivery. Still, Walmart customers are getting a bit of bargain: last year the cutoff was $50.

 

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