Walmart is testing back-of-store automated systems that can collect 800 products an hour, 10 times as many as a store worker. In the backroom of a Walmart store in Salem, N.H., is a floor-to-ceiling robotic system that the country’s largest retailer hopes will help it sell more groceries online. Workers stand on platforms in front of screens assembling online orders of milk, cereal and toilet paper from the hulking automated system. Wheeled robots carrying small baskets move along metal tracks to collect those items. They are bagged for pickup later by shoppers or delivery to homes. Walmart is one of several grocers including Albertsons and Kroger that are using automation to improve efficiency in a fast-growing but costly business that comes with a range of logistical challenges.
The backroom robots could help Walmart cut labor costs and fill orders faster and more accurately. It also could address another problem: unclogging aisles that these days can get crowded with clerks picking products for online orders. A store worker can collect around 80 products from store shelves an hour, estimated John Lert, founder and chief executive of Alert Innovation, the startup that has worked with Walmart to design the system dubbed Alphabot. It is designed to collect 800 products an hour per workstation, operated by a single individual, Mr. Lert said. Workers stock the 24-foot-high machine each day with the products most often ordered online, including refrigerated and frozen foods. Fresh produce is still picked by hand in store aisles.