Walmart Is Pulling Plug on More Robots -- Update
By Sarah Nassauer
At Walmart Inc., the robots are losing their jobs.
The retailer is phasing out the hulking automated pickup towers
that were erected in more than 1,500 stores to dispense online
orders. The decision reflects a growing focus on curbside pickup
services that have become more popular during the Covid-19 pandemic
and continues a broader retreat from some initiatives to use highly
visible automation in stores.
Over the past year Walmart has started to remove or turn off the
17-foot-tall machines often placed at the front of stores. About
300 machines are being removed from stores, and around 1,300
"hibernated" while Walmart focuses on other services, said Larry
Blue, chief executive of Bell & Howell, a Durham, N.C.-based
automation services company that installed and maintains the
devices for the retailer.
"The customer told us they want one pickup spot, and they want
that pickup spot to be outside," said a Walmart spokeswoman.
The pickup towers act as a vending machine for online orders,
holding items inside until they are collected by shoppers. Walmart
frequently highlighted the machines in presentations to media and
investors in recent years, saying it aimed to offer shoppers a
quicker way to pick up online orders at a lower cost. Last year the
company stopped using aisle-roving, inventory-tracking robots made
by Bossa Nova Robotics Inc., after finding that humans can help get
Walmart has expanded its online grocery curbside pickup and
home-delivery business in recent years, especially as Covid-19 has
made the service more appealing to many shoppers. That includes
expanding the availability of the services, as well as making more
nongrocery products available for purchase. Executives believe that
as shoppers can get more types of products curbside or delivered,
it makes less sense to offer multiple ways to pick up online orders
inside stores, according to people familiar with the situation.
Walmart is considering how it could use the pickup towers
differently in the future, according to one of these people.
John Furner, who took over the role of Walmart U.S. chief
executive in late 2019, has moved the retailer away from some of
the consumer-facing automation technology. Mark Ibbotson, former
head of central operations for Walmart, had championed some of the
technology internally, according to people familiar with the
situation, but left soon after Mr. Furner entered his current role.
Mr. Ibbotson declined to comment.
The pickup machines are manufactured by Cleveron, an
Estonia-based technology company, and were sold to Walmart through
Bell & Howell.
"We can't comment on our clients' business operations but can
say that our cooperation with Walmart remains ongoing in other
areas," said a spokeswoman for Cleveron.
Write to Sarah Nassauer at firstname.lastname@example.org
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
April 21, 2021 17:07 ET (21:07 GMT)
Copyright (c) 2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.