What do the latest changes at Walmart mean for the future of in-store automation?

Date : 23 April 2021

Stewart Samuel

Program Director - Canada

First went the shelf-scanning robots, now the pickup towers are being removed or hibernated. What do these changes mean for Walmart’s automation journey?

Fanfare and flagships

The Wall Street Journal has reported that Walmart is removing or decommissioning around 1,600 Pickup Towers which have been installed within its US stores over the last few years. This follows on from reports last year that the retailer was ending its use of the Auto-S shelf scanners within its US stores, which it had been using to monitor product availability and planogram compliance. While these had both been flasgship programmes for the retailer as part of its digitisation journey and in-store ecosystem development, in both cases, the technologies have become less relevant.

Source: IGD Research

Technologies less relevant for Walmart

In terms of shelf-scanning, Walmart has better visibility of its in-store inventory and availability levels, due to its ecommerce operations, with store associates regularly walking its aisles. This is helping it to tackle out-of-stock and other compliance issues. The pickup towers have also become less relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic with shoppers indicating a stronger preference for curbside pickup rather than collecting their items in-store, where almost all the towers are located.

Automation continues to have an important role

These changes do not mean the end of automation at Walmart. It continues to use other elements of its earlier programme, such as the FAST backdoor unloaders and Auto-C floor cleaners. Both have delivered significant productivity benefits. In addition, it is using automation in new ways. It continues to test automated pickup solutions outside of its stores, and in remote locations, while in-store it is expanding its range of automated micro-fulfillment partners. Self-driving vehicles and its latest investment in this area, also provides an indication of why I fully expect to see more automation in-store over the next few years, rather than less.

The technologies sent an early signal of intent

However, these changes will raise questions whether they were the correct initiatives to pursue initially. For me, they have played an important role in Walmart’s ongoing transformation. Both technologies initially changed the nature of work within a Walmart store, but more importantly were a visible demonstration to its teams, customers and investors of the journey that it was on. They were experiential elements that people were able to get excited about and provided a glimpse of what the future of a more tech-enabled industry could look like.

From Walmart’s perspective, they provided an early signal of its intent, and in this respect, I don’t believe anything has fundamentally changed. It continues to set the pace on the use and adoption of new technologies and remains further ahead with its transformation than any other traditional retailer. Its ability to pivot in this way is a further sign of the strength of the leadership team and its bold decision making.

Retail Analysis weekly newsletter

Keep up-to-date with the latest retail developments shaping the industry.

Sign up for our newsletter »