Walmart Tests Robotics: Is the Jetsons Age Finally Upon Us?
The recently remodeled Walmart Supercenter in Salem, New Hampshire may provide an interesting glimpse as to what retail will look like in the future. But, if you’re expecting Jetsons-like customer facing features (I know, I date myself by merely mentioning the cartoon…), you are likely to be disappointed. The real advancements in robotics, for now anyways, will be in driving efficiency from a supply chain and distribution standpoint. Real people, for now, will still largely be fulfilling the customer facing components of a retail experience.
Much of the publicity around the new store is centered around a robotics picking system dubbed Alphabot, which will facilitate on-line ordering fulfillment. Walmart has made a significant bet in click and collect as a central tenet of their grocery e-commerce business, utilizing their brick and mortar stores for fulfillment of grocery orders. The retailer is offering this service for free, which provides significant cost savings over delivery options. While this is a great service, it is costly today to fulfill, stage and service from a large retail store. The enhancements Walmart announced are designed to address these issues:
- Importantly, the addition of a 20,000 square foot extension to the store that will be designed to house fast moving SKU’s. These SKU’s can then be picked by autonomous mobile carts to bring them to associates who will then combine them with the hand picked perishables to quickly fulfill orders. Those orders can then be accessed by consumers through an automated Pickup Tower. While these may not seem “sexy”, improving the efficiency of fulfillment (number of items per hour) is a critical metric in the cost equation.
- Other high tech features in the store include the Bossa Nova shelf scanner, which uses automation to check inventory levels, a critical component in maintaining stock integrity—many retail out of stocks are driven by inaccurate shelf placement of goods or simply not being alerted to an out of stock. Walmart is also using technology to automatically sort items from daily replenishment trucks.
- Finally, and perhaps surprisingly, Walmart ditched an ambitious test for Scan & Go self checkouts, which enabled the customer to scan their own items and then check out at a central area. This is being replaced by Check Out with Me, a high touch solution where associates armed with cellular devices and blueprint printers can check out customers away from the main line.
Collectively, this is not Amazon Go, which is trying to revolutionize the shopping experience. It is Walmart grinding away at core components of cost, addressing sales crippling out-of-stocks and trying to improve front end efficiency. It is the right move to make for a company that understands that small incremental savings can amount to a major competitive edge. The flying cars (sorry Jetsons fans) will have to wait.