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Walmart pilots new grocery technology to take on Amazon and Kroger


The nation’s largest grocer is not taking a back seat in the race to streamline in-store fulfillment of online grocery orders.

Walmart has been piloting a new technology called Alphabot that is designed to enable quicker, more efficient picking of online grocery orders at the store level. The retail giant has been testing the technology at its supercenter in Salem, New Hampshire, since mid-2019.

Developed exclusively for Walmart by startup Alert Innovation, the Alphabot system operates inside a 20,000-sq.-ft. warehouse-style space, using autonomous carts to retrieve ambient, refrigerated and frozen items ordered for online grocery. After it retrieves the products Alphabot delivers them to an in-store workstation, where a Walmart associate checks, bags and delivers the final order. 

As the Walmart grocery pickup and delivery process currently works, associates select items from the sales floor for customers, package them and then deliver them. While associates will continue to pick produce and other fresh items by hand, Alphabot will help make the retrieval process for all other items easier and faster, according to Walmart. 

Alphabot’s fully autonomous bots operate on three axes of motion. Because the carts that carry items move both horizontally and vertically without any lifts or conveyors, there are fewer space constraints, which Walmart hopes will make adoption of the system easier across stores.

By increasing fulfillment speeds, Walmart also hopes this technology can create more convenience for customers, allowing them to place orders closer to pick-up time, and reducing wait time when picking up an order. 

In addition, Alphabot continually shares order information in real-time. Armed with this data, Walmart intends to make shelf-stocking more intelligent – such as placing items that are usually bought together close to each other. Walmart also seeks to use order data to help make more personally targeted substitutions when a customer’s first choice is out of stock.

“By assembling and delivering orders to associates, Alphabot is streamlining the order process, allowing associates to do their jobs with greater speed and efficiency,” said Brian Roth, senior manager of pickup automation and digital operations for Walmart U.S. “Ultimately, this will lower dispense times, increase accuracy and improve the entirety of online grocery. And it will help free associates to focus on service and selling, while the technology handles the more mundane, repeatable tasks. This is going to be a transformative impact to Walmart’s supply chain. Alphabot is what we think of as micro-fulfillment – an inventive merger of e-commerce and brick and mortar methods.”

Albertsons, a major grocery rival of Walmart, is running a similar “micro-fulfillment” center pilot supported by a hyperlocal fulfillment solution from Takeoff Technologies. Located inside an existing store, micro-fulfillment centers typically hold about 15,000 to 18,000 of the local market’s most popular products. The centers use robotic technology to fulfill e-commerce orders and provide real-time information about inventory.

Walmart said that its Salem location will continue to serve as home base for Alphabot while the process is “studied, refined and perfected.” After collecting associate and customer feedback, Walmart will assess next steps for a broader Alphabot rollout.

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