“Walmart is adding a 20,000-square-foot extension to the Salem store to house the Alphabot system, warehouse online grocery orders and serve as a pickup point, with drive-through lanes for customers. When the project is finished, automated mobile carts will retrieve ordered items and ferry them to personal shoppers at one of four pick stations. The associates then will pick, assemble and deliver the orders to customers.”
You can get a glimpse of the system in action in this video:
As you can see in the video, small, wheeled robots (Alphabots) scurry around on tracks to bring items to a human, who then puts them in the bag corresponding with the correct online order. Then, expanded, dedicated drive-through lanes provide a fast way for shoppers to pick up groceries (still loaded into trunks by humans… for now) without getting out of their car. The new system is scheduled to be up and running at the Salem Supercenter by the end of the year.
This might sound familiar to readers of The Spoon, as it’s pretty much what the startup Takeoff is doing: creating robot-powered micro-fulfillment centers within existing grocery stores paired with dedicated pickup areas. Takeoff says it only needs 6,000 -- 10,000 square feet inside a store to build out its robot fulfillment system.
There’s a lot to unpack with these automated grocery centers. However, there are four major convergent factors that I think could drive their rapid adoption:
First is optimization. Walmart is big on robots, especially for tasks it says are manual and repetitive (oh hi, shelf scanning robot!). It makes more sense for robots to grab items from a backroom than a human to run around with a shopping cart. The Alphabot system, Walmart says, will allow its employees to focus on customer service and selling things. This is something we hear a lot — robots let humans prioritize the more human tasks (like picking produce).
Then there’s speed. A robotic system can fulfill orders faster than a human. While Takeoff currently has a two-hour pickup window for pre-ordered groceries, the company says the system actually completes an order in only two minutes and can ratchet the pickup window down to a half hour, if need be.
In terms of convenience, getting your groceries in half an hour makes curbside pickup competitive with a two-hour home delivery. There’s no need to wait at home (or let a stranger in) when you can pick up orders quickly from your trusted local store on your way home from work, or make them a part of your existing errand routine. Not to mention that curbside pickup from Walmart, at least, is free.
Finally, and this is probably not as huge of a deal as the other factors listed, studies show that a big reason people don’t buy groceries online is that they want to touch and feel a product before purchasing it. Having curbside pickup theoretically allows shoppers to get out of their car (gasp!) and inspect delicate items such as fruits and vegetables, then return them if the selection isn’t to their liking.
Seeing as how none of these robotic fulfillment centers in grocery stores have gone online yet, we don’t know how people will interact with them. But the idea isn’t something retail outlets should sleep on.