Dual-use robots, footstool changes part of new Walmart technology, processes

by Kim Souza (ksouza@talkbusiness.net) 1,705 views 

Walmart U.S. CEO Greg Foran spoke to the media June 6 about new technology in use and being tested at Walmart U.S. stores.

In retail as in life, connections are everything. On that premise, retail giant Walmart continues to invest in front-end and back-end technologies to drive efficiencies across its half-trillion-dollar global business.

Walmart U.S. CEO Greg Foran recently spoke to the media about some of the strategies behind the technology investments. He told Talk Business & Politics the digital transformation underway at Walmart is a journey and is moving quickly with innovations from within and from key technology partners. The end goal, he said, is to create a frictionless shopping experience and that also involves making sure employees have the best tools available to facilitate that goal.

He said employees are starting to get engaged in using technology application tools they can access on a smartphone. These back-end facing – the customer doesn’t see them – technologies include a scannable badge that allows employees access to check schedules, product availability and monitor the progress on the items they are promoting within their departments.

Talk Business & Politics spoke with three employees from the Houston metro area who were chosen by the stores to attend this year’s shareholder events. They said of all the news they heard at the U.S. Associates Meeting held June 5, the scannable badges are likely the most beneficial. Foran said the badges will be rolled out company-wide later this year.

He said the badges give each employee the ability to get into the system for their own sake or to help customers, and it doesn’t require flagging down a department or support manager. Foran said putting the right tools in the hands of employees is making a positive impact on company financials. He said the retailer’s academies are also helping to ensure employees get the training they need to use the technology. When asked how non-tech savvy employees are responding, Foran said they are eager to learn it and use it.

Walmart execs also used the shareholders week to unveil store technologies that improve the customer shopper experience. In Walmart Store No. 5260 in Rogers, Alphabot installed a new giant robot that has the ability to store up to 4,000 crates of groceries waiting to be picked up by customers. This is the first configuration of the device by Alphabot who installed a robotic picking system in Salem, N. H., a few months ago. The Salem test allows Alphabot to do all the legwork of the pickers moving in multiple directions within a large pod. The machine has a pick rate of 1,700 picks per hour. The manual system now used has personal shoppers picking eight orders at once and the business stores see roughly 300 orders per day.

Walmart said the local system is designed to store the orders awaiting pickup. Tom Ward, senior vice president of digital operations and last mile at Walmart U.S., said the new robot allows for orders to be kept frozen, refrigerated or in ambient space similar to the shelves where they were picked. He said the store in Rogers is one of the busiest for online grocery pickup and even though the company added additional loading space, he said there was still a traffic jam of carts trying to get the orders out to customers at the appropriate time with a minimal wait.

The new system allows orders that come in early to be picked early and kept ready to distribute at the appropriate pickup time. Walmart employs around 30,000 personal shoppers who do nothing but pick orders for online grocery. As the company continues to add the pickup service to 1,000 stores this year that number will increase.

Ward did not say if there are plans to put Alphabots in other Arkansas stores. He said the company will evaluate the demand and where it makes sense will innovate to provide the service.

Also inside the store, Walmart continues to test electronic shelf labels. The company updated the media on this test saying the price had come down low enough to make the technology more feasible. There are two small tests underway in Store 5260 in Rogers and Store No 1 in Rogers. The Neighborhood Market in Pea Ridge is testing the labels across the entire store.

The biggest advantage of electronic shelf labels are increased efficiencies and accuracies in price changes. There is also the ability to have customers scan the label for additional information, though that feature is not active in the Rogers stores.

Walmart made the news last year when it began using a robot to scrub the floors. Mark Ibbotson, executive vice president of central operations, said that was a job nobody wanted to do. The robot does a good job cleaning the floors, but the company also had it scanning the end-cap displays for accurate pricing and out-of-stocks.

“The dual use of this machine helps to make it pencil [affordable],” Ibbotson said.

He said Walmart continues to look for cost savings and that helps offset the continued tech investments. One such cost savings was shared by Walmart CEO Doug McMillon during Friday’s shareholder meeting in Fayetteville. He said changing the footstools used in loading trucks in local distribution centers helped the freight cube better. The company changed from using a wide two-step stool to a narrow stool that allows loaders to more accurately load the truck with less empty space. It was the idea of a local employee in Bentonville.

“This is saving the company $30 million this year,” McMillon said.

Walmart also unveiled a new look to its pharmacy department, with the first revamp at Store No 5260 in Rogers. The layout features a walk-up kiosk allowing customers to access their prescriptions after hours. The system has not yet been activated, but Walmart said it’s coming soon.

One other use of technology highlighted by Ward was the use of self-driving vehicles. Ward said Walmart has tests underway in states that allow it. In Arkansas, Walmart recently pushed for the law change and Walmart will begin using self-driving cars to make deliveries of grocery orders picked from the Bentonville Grocery Pickup Center on J Street to the Walmart Neighborhood Market on I Street. Talk Business & Politics first reported this in April.

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