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Walmart 1 for 2 in Novel Fulfillment Technologies

Self-serve indoor towers a hit but unattended grocery pickup to be retooled, per EVP Ibbotoson

As ominichannel shopping has transformed Walmart’s stores into nodes of a distribution network, the company’s efforts toward more efficiently fulfilling online orders at those points are continuing, said EVP of Central Operations Mark Ibbotson in a presentation at Shoptalk in Las Vegas late Tuesday.

The big company is batting .500 on novel approaches to pickup that were introduced last year, Ibbotson said. The giant orange towers that distribute general merchandise orders in-store in the style of a vending machine have been a smashing success. But a stand-alone unattended grocery pickup depot that Walmart built last year in the parking lot of a Supercenter in Oklahoma is going back to the drawing board.

That unit—which stores ambient, chilled and frozen items and delivers them to shoppers using a code associated with their order in a style of ATM for groceries—has encountered some condensation issues interfering with performance of the doors, Ibbotson said. The U.K. native also joked that the company shouldn’t have left location decisions to foreigners, saying that frequently windy conditions in the wide-open parking lot made for a less-than-ideal setting for the unit.

However, Walmart is not giving up on the concept. The company is at work retooling the unit to embed it in the fabric of a store in Texas, Ibbotson said, with that location expected to open late this year.

The orange towers, which were code-named Rapunzel, have passed the trial stage and are now in rollout and on pace for 650 stores by year-end. Ibbotson said the solution, developed by Bell & Howell, was brought about by customers dissatisfied with how long it took to retrieve online orders in stores, typically by lining up at the customer service desk or, in some cases, accompanying an employee to a stockroom.

The initial unit, which was installed at a store in Rogers, Ark., last spring, required the company take out a section of the ceiling in order to fit it inside the building, Ibbotson said. The company now plans to place the units near the checkout stands in an effort to make them a typical part of checkout. Some curious customers, he said, are placing online orders simply to experience using the unit.

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