Walmart is partnering with Alert Innovation to pilot an in-store robotic picking system for grocery ecommerce orders.
Alphabot: how it works
The Alphabot technology is to be piloted at a supercenter in Salem, New Hampshire. The technology, which has been developed specifically for Walmart, will be housed in a 20,000 sq ft extension connected to the store. This will also serve as a dedicated grocery pickup point. The Alphabot technology will automatically bring items from storage to store associates who will consolidate the items in the order. Most grocery products offered in-store will be fulfilled through this system, although Walmart’s personal shoppers will continue to select produce and other fresh products.
Repurposing store space
The Alphabot will enable Walmart’s associates to have more time to focus on service and selling, creating a more compelling pickup experience. If this pilot proves to be successful, we would not expect to see the technology installed across the network, as one supercenter is likely to be able to serve a wide catchment.
Digitising the in-store environment
This new technology is the latest element of Walmart’s plan to digitise the in-store environment. The retailer is currently testing the use of automated in-store scanning tools, or ‘robots’ to help prioritise which areas of the store require replenishment. Bossa Nova scanners help identify where in-stock levels are low, prices are incorrect, or labels are missing. In addition, the scanners provide a real-time view of inventory in the store; the information is used to direct associates to the areas of the store that need the most attention.
Building an in-store technology ecosystem
Linked to this, Walmart is currently testing a new system in backrooms, FAST. This automatically scans and sorts items based on priority and department, allowing associates to spend less time unloading trucks in the backroom and more time on the sales floor. When combined with data from the Bossa Nova scanner, Walmart can move relevant inventory from the back room to the sales floor more quickly; out-of-stocks are sorted by the machine for prioritisation.
Testing and learning with grocery ecommerce fulfillment
Walmart continues to innovate with ecommerce fulfillment models. As part of this, Walmart is rolling out ‘Pickup Towers’ to more than 500 additional stores this year. This will bring the total to around 700, reaching 40% of the US population. These provide shoppers with a fast and easy way to collect their online orders in-store. The retailer has also been testing an automated pickup kiosk for groceries in Oklahoma. This year it is rolling out home delivery to 100 metro markets in the US, working with a range of delivery partners, while earlier this month it announced plans to work with Waymo to test driverless vehicles for online deliveries. The retailer also continues to test a ‘Pickup and Fuel’ concept, while in Bentonville, it continues to operate a grocery pickup dark store.
Range of solutions being deployed in the US market
What is interesting about the US market is that several different fulfilment models are being used, or under development. Beyond the traditional in-store picking model, these include distribution centre-based solutions such as Kroger Ship, relationships with third-party on-demand services such as Instacart and Shipt, and Ahold Delhaize’s ‘wareroom’ model. Recently Kroger announced a strategic partnership with Ocado to deploy its robotics-based solution for grocery ecommerce.