Walmart deploys grocery picking robots in its battle against Amazon

(Walmart Photo)

Walmart today showed off the newest weapon in its retail battle against Amazon: A cadre of robots that retrieve items for online grocery orders.

Walmart has been developing the robots for the last few years and testing them in a small warehouse attached to a store in Salem, New Hampshire, since the middle of last year. The company says the system is now “fully operational and working with associates.” It will drastically speed up online grocery turnaround times, Walmart said.

The robots operate autonomously inside the 20,000-square-foot warehouse, collecting shelf-stable, refrigerated and frozen food. The robots then deliver the items to a spot where a Walmart employee double-checks everything, bags the food and finishes the order.

Today, employees roam around stores picking items, a time-consuming process that requires longer lead times between the customer ordering items online and getting them via pickup or delivery. Employees will continue to pick items such as produce by hand.

“Ultimately, this will lower dispense times, increase accuracy and improve the entirety of online grocery,” Brian Roth, a senior manager of pickup automation and digital operations for Walmart U.S. said in a statement. “And it will help free associates to focus on service and selling, while the technology handles the more mundane, repeatable tasks.”

Walmart has worked on the project with startup Alert Innovation since 2016. The company continues to refine Alphabot, and the Salem store will remain its home. Walmart said it will look at rolling out the system at other stores after collecting employee feedback.

Walmart has plowed significant resources into growing its technology offerings, merging online ordering with its massive network of stores. Walmart is the nation’s largest grocer, but it faces an intense challenge from Amazon, which has invested heavily in grocery in recent years, primarily through the blockbuster acquisition of Whole Foods.

As of the third quarter, Walmart offered grocery pickup at more than 3,000 locations and same-day delivery from 1,400 stores. The company also has a series of Pickup Towers where customers can retrieve online orders at a store.

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