If you live in Salem, New Hampshire and reserve groceries online from Walmart, there’s a good chance a robot will soon lend your personal shopper a helping hand. The world’s largest retailer today unveiled a partnership with Massachusetts-based retail automation company Alert Innovation that’ll see the latter’s Alphabot technology deployed in a 20,000-square-foot extension connected to the Salem superstore by 2019.
The Alphabot system — which was developed especially for Walmart, the company said — consists of automated carts that retrieve items from storage containers and deliver them to store clerks, who assemble orders and prep them for in-store pickup or delivery. Walmart said that the “majority” of shelf-stable, refrigerated, and frozen foods will be transported this way, the exceptions being produce and “other fresh items.”
About 95 percent of orders will be picked up in less than eight minutes, Walmart told Yahoo Tech.
“With the aid of Alphabot, our associates will have more time to focus on service and selling, the two things they often tell us are the most enjoyable part of the job, while the technology handles the more mundane, repeatable tasks,” Walmart wrote. “Although this is a small pilot, we expect big things from it.”
The announcement comes as online grocery sales hit historic highs. They’re projected to capture 20 percent of the $641 billion U.S. grocery market by 2025, according to a study by the Food Marketing Institute conducted by Nielsen. Already, about 20 percent of shoppers purchase groceries online, and as many as 9 percent purchase them more than once a month.
Walmart offers online grocery delivery in 1,800 stores, with plans to expand to 2,000 by the end of this year.
Alert Innovation isn’t the only startup tapping robotics to tackle the logistical challenges of brick and mortar. U.K. supermarket chain Ocado — one of the world’s largest online-only grocery retailers — has engineered a packing system that uses computer vision to transfer goods. And Bossa Nova develops robots that autonomously navigate stores and take stock of what’s on shelves. (Walmart is one of its customers.)