Walmart pilots a grocery-picking robot to fulfill customers’ online orders

Walmart is testing a new robotics system that picks customers’ grocery orders. The retailer this morning announced it has partnered with Alert Innovation to deploy Alphabot, a system designed for Walmart, in its Salem, New Hampshire superstore. The automated technology will be installed in a 20,000-square foot extension connected to the store, which will also serve as the dedicated grocery pick-up point with drive-thru lanes for customers.

The idea being tested here is to find out how much a robotics system like this can speed up the fulfillment of customers’ online grocery orders.

Alphabot helps with this by automatically bringing items from storage to Walmart’s store staff, who then assemble customers’ orders. The system is capable of picking the “vast majority” of grocery items, the retailer says, including dry goods, refrigerated and frozen items. That means Walmart’s personal shoppers won’t have to walk the aisles to fulfill grocery orders, except for handpicking produce and other fresh items.

Walmart’s online grocery pick-up program is popular with consumers who don’t have time to shop, but don’t want to pay the higher prices associated with grocery delivery services like Shipt and Instacart. It also gives Walmart a way to compete as it tries to figure out its grocery delivery strategy, in the face of the Amazon/Whole Foods threat.

The company’s earlier delivery partnerships with Uber and Lyft have been terminated, and now Walmart works with an assortment of partners, including Postmates, Deliv and Doordash. The retailer earlier this year claimed it would provide delivery services in 100 markets by year-end.

But the number of stores offering grocery pickup services is much larger – 1,200 as of March up from 600 two years ago, with plans to expand to 1,000 more throughout 2018. There are 1,800 stores offering grocery pickup at present.

Making the grocery picking process more efficient means customers could place orders online which would then be ready by the time they arrived, in some cases.

Walmart says Alphabot will go online by the end of 2018. However, shoppers at the Salem store will be able to order groceries online for pick-up beginning October 1. The store will also this year begin offering grocery delivery, but no date was given.

The Salem store itself is serving as a flagship testing ground for Walmart’s newer technologies. Following its remodel, it will serve as a home to Walmart’s Pickup Tower for online orders; an automated shelf-scanner that identifies out-of-stock items; the FAST unloader which helps move items off trucks; and Walmart’s mobile point-of-sale, Check Out With Me.

Alphabot is considered a pilot program, as Walmart is making no promises of a wider rollout at this time. Instead, it’s hoping to learn more about how the technology can aid this part of its business.