Walmart announced today that it is ramping up its use of automated centers to fulfill online grocery orders. The company said it is already planning “dozens” of locations with “many more to come.”
Automated fulfillment centers use robotics to assemble items for incoming orders. The result is a faster turnaround for customer delivery or pickup.
According to a corporate blog post announcing the news:
[Walmart will] be building local fulfillment centers with various technology partners, including Alert Innovation, Dematic and Fabric. With these partners, we’ll be testing different orientations and add-on innovations to understand what works best in different environments. For example, in some locations, we’ll be adding on to our stores. In others, the fulfillment centers will sit inside the existing store footprint.
At its Salem, New Hampshire location, Walmart had piloted Alert Innovation’s automated fulfillment technology back in 2019. Walmart didn’t explain why has chosen three different solutions going forward, though if the retailer is going all-in on automated fulfillment, one company may not have been able to scale up quickly enough. We do know that Fabric specializes in building automated fulfillment centers in small, non-traditional spaces, and Walmart said its rollout would test different automated fulfillment configurations.
After a slow burn for the past few years, automated fulfillment is becoming hot with grocers in 2021. FreshDirect is also using Fabric’s solution for a fulfillment center in the Washington D.C. area. Albertsons is expanding its use of Takeoff Technology’s micro-fulfillment. Dematic is being used in Amazon’s grocery stores. H-E-B is using Swisslog. And Kroger is set to open up the first of its planned 20 automated customer fulfillment centers this year.
The reason for this burst in robotic fulfillment activity is the pandemic. COVID-19-related fears pushed people into record amounts of online grocery shopping last year. While a vaccine is being deployed, people have developed new habits, and online grocery shopping is expected to take up 21.5 percent of total grocery sales by 2025.
As such, retailers need to increase their throughput now to retain customer loyalty. Faster turnaround means more slots available for curbside pickup and delivery. Walmart may not have found inventory counting robots on its floors particularly efficient, but it seems to believe robots in the backroom building out orders is.