US – American multinational retail corporation Walmart has announced plans to use robots in select stores across the United States to handle surging online orders, cut delivery times and significantly reduce operational costs.

The US gaint says that the robots will be dispatched to dedicated warehouses which will be located within or next to existing stores where they will be involved in fetching items such as boxed and frozen food for online orders.

The company however noted that Human workers will still be required at the stores and will be involved in handling more complex tasks such as choosing fresh produce or larger items.

As well as handling groceries, the robots will be able to pack “thousands of the items we know customers want most, from consumables to electronics”.

Walmart says it had been piloting its micro-fulfilment concept at a store in Salem, New Hampshire, since 2019.

The technology has been built in partnership with grocery robotics company Alert Innovation, Atlanta-based automation specialist Dematic and micro-fulfilment technology company Fabric, based in New York.

With the robots, Tom Ward, head of customer product for Walmart US says that the whole order fulfillment process can take just a few minutes from the time the order is placed to the time it’s ready for a customer or delivery driver to collect.

Walmart also plans to experiment with automated pick-up systems that would present the goods at a hatch once a customer scanned a code on their smartphone.

The plans follow a surge in ecommerce business for Walmart during the coronavirus pandemic, with online sales up 79 per cent in the third quarter last year from the same period a year earlier.

With a spike in demand, costs have escalated as the retailer pushed ahead with plans to add kerbside deliveries to many of its US stores.

Automation could reduce the cost of picking online orders by about 75 per cent, according to analysis from Jefferies.

This could be of great advantage to Walmart as cost and time of “last-mile” delivery is usually the most expensive stage of an ecommerce order as it reaches a customer’s home.

Walmart did not specify which of its stores would have robotics capabilities but industry sources suggest that two stores in Texas, one in Utah and another near the company’s headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas would be among the first.

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