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How Walmart aims to get you through checkout faster this holiday season

A display at Walmart’s holiday strategy presentation at a store in Teterboro, N.J. (Sarah Halzack/The Washington Post)

TETERBORO, N.J. — This holiday shopping season, you’ll see plenty of red and green at Walmart. But you’re also going to see a lot of yellow.

The big-box chain is investing in specialized teams of store workers known as “holiday helpers,” recognizable by their bright yellow vests, Santa hats and their festive shoulder bags. These staffers are going to be primarily focused on keeping checkout lines moving as efficiently as possible: They might direct you to an available cashier, open up an extra register, or run back into the aisles to get an item you forgot to grab.

During a holiday strategy presentation at a Walmart store here, U.S. chief operating officer Judith McKenna said the holiday helper team was devised in response to shopper feedback.

“That was actually the number one thing that customers told us,” McKenna said. “Which is, ‘how can you help us get through the checkouts faster?’”

The holiday helpers are scheduled start showing up in stores on Nov. 4.  The number of such workers will vary by location, based on the size and sales volume, but each store will ramp up the number of helpers on weekends and other busy days.

Walmart’s investment in holiday helpers is evidence that, even in the digital era, retailers are focused on fine-tuning the in-store experience. This is especially essential for a retailer such as Walmart, which still draws the vast majority of its sales from brick-and-mortar stores.

The world’s largest retailer did not offer specifics on what its deals would be this November and December, but executives said the approach would be similar to 2015. Last year, the chain offered special Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals after the Thanksgiving Day holiday, but otherwise hewed to season-long promotions instead of things like weekend-long flash sales. Executives said they thought consumers would find that strategy less confusing and frustrating.

Walmart also said it is expecting a surge in usage of its pickup program, which allows shoppers to order items online and retrieve them at a counter in the store. To make that operation run more smoothly, the retailer is moving this season to add department managers to its pickup areas. A sign that hangs behind the Teterboro store’s counter gives you a sense of their mandate: “High five for a less than five-minute wait time.”

On the e-commerce front, Walmart hopes to deliver a stronger performance this year by relying on an expanded assortment of items. At the beginning of 2016, it had about 8 million items for sale online; today, it has about 20 million, including goods sold by third-party sellers on its marketplace. That’s a sharp improvement, and yet it is still far less than 350 million items is thought to carry. (Amazon’s chief executive, Jeffrey P. Bezos, owns The Washington Post.) And not all of Walmart’s 20 million items are available for same-day store pickup.

As always, Walmart will also be trying to win the holiday shopping wars with its merchandise selection. In the toy aisle, it is counting on a lineup of 400 exclusive toys to distinguish its offering from the pack. In particular, executives pointed out a $398 ride-on Disney Princess Carriage that has been selling so fast that the chain has had to go back to the supplier to ask it to make more.

In the apparel department, Walmart plans to ride the “ugly Christmas sweater” wave. In recent years, theme parties have abounded that ask revelers to come decked out in their cheesiest seasonal regalia. In turn, executives noticed that kitschy sweaters were selling well — and that men were often buying these garments in women’s size large. So they’ve ramped up their festive sweater offering this year, and also have gone big with other quirky pieces such as a slippers bedecked with emoji. Chief merchandising officer Steve Bratspies said Walmart has bought 40 percent more of these novelty-type items this holiday season compared with last year.