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We look at Walmart’s plans to add more technology to its stores and its efforts to build a dedicated ecosystem.

900 new Pickup Towers

Walmart has been one of the leaders in the US retail sector in terms of deploying new technologies in-store to either improve the shopping experience or to simplify ways of working. Many of its customer-facing technologies have been focused on its ecommerce operations, with the goal of making the store pickup process as fast and convenient as possible. Pickup Towers have been a central element, enabling customers to retrieve their orders within seconds of entering a store. With over 700 currently in place, the retailer plans to add a further 900 to the network.

Source: IGD Research

300 Auto-S shelf scanners

The retailer has also been using robotic scanners in-store to monitor product availability and planogram compliance. These scanners help identify where stock levels are low, prices are incorrect, or labels are missing. In addition, the scanners provide a real-time view of inventory in the store; the information is used to direct associates to the areas of the store that need the most attention. Using machine learning capabilities, the scanner can scan dozens of aisles in under an hour. This information is integrated into a workforce app which provides associates with detailed information on the tasks to be completed. The retailer plans to add a further 300 scanners to its stores.

Source: IGD Research

1,200 FAST Unloaders

Linked to this, Walmart has been testing a new system in backrooms, the FAST Unloader. This automatically scans and sorts items which are delivered to stores based on priority and department, allowing associates to spend less time unloading trucks in the backroom and more time on the sales floor. When combined with data from the shelf scanner, the retailer can move relevant inventory from the back room to the sales floor more quickly; out-of-stocks are sorted by the machine for prioritisation. Trucks are unloaded in two hours or less, using four people, compared to requiring eight people previously. Walmart plans on rolling-out the FAST Unloader to 1,200 additional stores.

Source: IGD Research

1,500 Auto-C autonomous floor cleaners

The retailer has also introduced autonomous floor cleaners. Each cleaner is programmed to travel across the store, polishing the floor. This helps to maintain a cleaner experience for its customers while also freeing up its associates. A further 1,500 floor cleaners will be deployed across its network adding to around 400 units which are currently operational.

Source: IGD Research

Creating more engaging work

Beyond these initiatives, Walmart has introduced several other tech elements which are changing the nature of work in its stores. The ‘One Best Way’ program focuses on simplifying processes, with many tasks seeing a significant reduction in the number of steps required to complete them. The goal is to provide meaningful work for associates through optimising technologies and making routine tasks more engaging. The retailer has introduced virtual reality headsets and a new gaming app as part of its learning and development initiative, while a suite of task-orientated and management information apps has made it significantly easier to manage and monitor the flow of work in-store.

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Walmart is partnering with Google to introduce voice ordering capabilities for its online grocery service.

Draws on previous shopping behaviours to identify specific products

The new Walmart Voice Order service enables customer to say “Hey Google, talk to Walmart” to activate the Google Assistant. Products will be added directly to the customer’s shopping basket, with the service learning and delivering improved accuracy the more it is used. It will also draw on previous purchases to help identify specific products through shoppers using generic product terms.

Source: Walmart

Innovation underpinning ecommerce growth

The introduction of this service aligns with Walmart’s goal of making every day easier for busy families. Its online grocery business continues to grow at a rapid pace. In the last year, it added an additional 1,000 pickup locations and took its delivery initiative to 800 locations. The retailer has launched several pilot programmes in this space including a self-driving test and a last-mile grocery delivery service, Spark Delivery. US ecommerce sales were up 43% in the last quarter.

Competing with Amazon’s Alexa service

While Walmart is initially partnering with Google, working across multiple platforms including the Google Home Hub, Android phones and iPhones, it plans to add others to the mix over time. Walmart initially partnered with Google for voice-based ordering in 2017, enabling customers to order more than two million items from Walmart.com. This new service will pitch Walmart directly against Amazon, which leads voice-based shopping in the US through its Alexa-enabled devices.

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FedEx has launched an autonomous delivery service, the FedEx SameDay Bot. It is collaborating with a range of partners to help assess their autonomous delivery needs.

Tackling the complexities and costs of same-day delivery

Same-day, hyper-local delivery has come into focus in the US over the last 12 months as retailers aim to optimise their stores as a competitive advantage within the ecommerce channel. The FedEx SameDay Bot has been developed to help companies tackle the complexities and costs associated with same-day delivery.

Source: FedEx

Testing to start this summer

The FedEx Bot has been designed to travel on pavements and along roadsides. It incorporates multiple cameras and machine learning algorithms to avoid obstacles and help it navigate unpaved surfaces, curbs and steps. The company plans on testing it in Memphis, Tennessee, later this summer, complementing its existing ‘SameDay City’ service.

Innovating in the last mile

The growing popularity of same-day delivery services is leading retailers to find cost-optimal solutions, particularly for smaller baskets. Several retailers globally are testing similar delivery services. Earlier this year, Amazon launched the Amazon Scout in the Seattle area, while PepsiCo is collaborating with the University of the Pacific on a ‘SnackBot’ programme. In the UK, Tesco and Co-op are trialling similar initiatives, while in China, JD.com has deployed driverless delivery vehicles in several cities. We expect to see more innovation in this area, including further testing of driverless cars, as retailers also aim to better understand how customers interact with these various delivery modes.

Subscribers: log-in to access our latest report, Last mile: delivering the goods, to see 16 examples of how technology is being used to enhance the last mile.

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