The line between shopping in a store and shopping online has been blurring over the past few years. Retailers have been building omnichannel experiences with the goal of having customers move seamlessly between in-store shopping and digital.

Consumers might order a product via an app and pick it up in-store, or they could stand in a brick-and-mortar location looking at an item, then buy it digitally for home delivery. It's a customer-friendly effort designed to give shoppers what they want, where and how they want it.

Now, Walmart (NYSE:WMT) has taken its in-store omnichannel efforts to the next level. The retailer, which has invested heavily in digital, has a new way for its app users to enhance their brick-and-mortar shopping.

A person uses the new Wal-Mart app in a store, holding their phone up in front of racks of food for sale..

Store Assistant is designed to improve in-store shopping. Image source: Walmart.

What is Walmart doing?

When Walmart customers visit a store and open the company's app, it now reveals something entirely new. Instead of showing the retailer's app as a person would see it at home, it will give in-store shoppers a different digital service that the company is calling Store Assistant.

"All of the tools you need to make shopping fast and easy, such as Walmart Pay, will be right at your fingertips," Walmart Senior Vice President Daniel Eckert wrote in a blog post. "We've also made the product search bar and the scanner easier to find, so you can quickly read reviews, find items in store and double-check prices."

Store Assistant is designed to make it easier to get in, get what you came for, and get out. It was built to serve a base of customers who already have their smartphones in their hands as they enter a store. The new app offers a number of features including (the words in quote marks are from Walmart):

  • "Smarter, better lists": Walmart actually pitches this in the blog as partly a before-you-shop tool. Eckert wrote that 80% of the chain's customers use a list when shopping. The new app improves list-building, allowing shoppers to enter a generic term like "milk" rather than a specific brand name and it will check what's in stock at your local store. The app also totals up the prices of the items on your list (with tax) as you add them and helps you find items in the store.
  • "Improved store navigation with store maps": Every store will have its own map showing exactly where each item is. This feature has been launched in a small number of stores and will take time to make its way to the entire chain.
  • "Even more store information": This will let users know if the store they are in has a photo center or whether it offers eyeglasses or other special services. It will also offer hours for each department and contact information.

Eckert wrote that these initial features are just a start. He also shared the future direction of Store Assistant in his blog post:

"Imagine dropping pins on a store map tied to the location of items on your list, enabling you to plan your route through our stores, or the ability to book services like an oil change in advance. Imagine even smarter lists ... maybe so smart that you'll hardly have to make them!"

This is the future of in-store retail

Walmart is taking the lead in creating what will become the new normal. In many ways, the chain is following a trail blazed by Starbucks, which has fully integrated its app into its stores.

Using an app to enhance in-store shopping makes sense. It eases the burden on customer service people and can remove pain points for customers. What Walmart is doing should eventually be copied by many other brick-and-mortar retail players.

Daniel B. Kline has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Starbucks. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.