How a 16-foot, box-serving tower wants to change your shopping experience

August 29, 2018

By Kevin Smith | San Gabriel Valley Tribune

It’s eight feet wide and towers more than 16 feet into the air.

This is no recreation of the Monolith from the sci-fi film “2001.” Nope, this brightly colored enclosure is the new Pickup Tower at the Walmart superstore in Pico Rivera. The giant self-serve kiosk — situated just inside the store’s entrance by the checkout lines — functions much like a high-tech vending machine, allowing shoppers to order items online then pick them up at the store.

Walmart’s tower is the latest salvo from the nation’s largest brick-and-mortar retailer as it battles to gain ground against Amazon and other online outlets. The strategy is designed to help customers save time and shop, however, whenever and wherever they want. Walmart has installed 200 towers so far and has plans for 500 more this year.

“As we get more and more accustomed to shopping made possible by online delivery, brick-and-mortar stores need to stay on the convenience curve,” said Anthony Dukes, an expert in retail pricing strategies and big box stores at USC. “Amazon and other e-commerce companies have upped consumers’ expectations for convenience.”

But will a giant mechanical tower that spits out brown boxes change our shopping habits? And will it kill yet more retail jobs? Perhaps … but likely not, experts say.

Easy to use

Shoppers hoping to avoid the long lines and noisy crowds typically associated with Walmart will find the tower experience easier — and faster.

The process is simple. A customer buys something from the millions of items available at Walmart.com and selects the pickup option at checkout. After an employee loads the item into the Pickup Tower, the customer receives a confirmation email. Shoppers retrieve their merchandise by scanning a barcode sent to their smartphone — a process that takes mere seconds. The item is delivered in a box or package via a conveyor belt inside the massive kiosk.

Shopper Lucia Frayde sampled the technology Tuesday, Aug. 28 when she stopped by the Pico Rivera store at 8500 Washington Blvd. to pick up a dress for her daughter. Holding her phone up to the tower’s front panel, she scanned her barcode. Seconds later, a glass panel rose to reveal the packaged dress sitting beneath a bright light.

“This was really quick,” Frayde said. “I would do this again.”

700 Pickup Towers by year’s end

Walmart has Pickup Towers in three Southern California stores — one at the Pico Rivera location, another at 3943 Grande Ave. in Chino and a third at 44665 Valley Central Way in Lancaster. Walmart stores in La Quinta, Mountain View, San Jose and Stockton also have towers.

When the rollout is complete, towers will be available to nearly 40 percent of the U.S. population, Walmart said. The company also has added pickup lockers to hold bigger items, such as TVs, large toys and sporting equipment. A shopper can access the correct locker by pressing the “open” button on the tower’s control panel.

Brandon Michaels, e-commerce manager for the Pico Rivera store, said the tower’s launch on Aug. 16 was well received by customers. “They really like the in-and-out convenience. With the busy lifestyles we have here in Southern California, you need that zero wait. You just get your item and go,” he said.

A customer has seven days to pick up an item after receiving the confirmation email indicating their merchandise is ready. Customers also can shop for items in the store and pick them up at the tower, although it takes two hours from the time the order is placed for the merchandise to be ready for pickup.

Increasing hiring predicted

With the holiday shopping season ahead, will this robotic tower be a potential job killer?

Automation has been blamed for job losses in a variety of industries, but Burt Flickinger III, managing director for the retail consulting firm Strategic Resource Group, said Walmart’s oversized vending machines aren’t going to put anyone out of work.

“No one will lose his or her job at Walmart due to the towers because Walmart will increase its customer counts by 2 percent to 5 percent from the towers, which means Walmart will hire more workers,” Flickinger said via email.

The quick-serve trend has also been seen at Target stores and Amazon, which recently opened a handful of brick-and-mortar stores designed to help speed online delivery to urban areas and college campuses.

Report predicts millions of job losses

The Pickup Towers may not result in job losses at Walmart, but a report from the McKinsey Global Institute predicts as many as 73 million U.S. jobs and as many as 800 million jobs worldwide could be lost to automation by 2030. Studies have shown that people who work in such industries as manufacturing, food preparation, construction, accounting and transportation are particularly at risk.

Other recent examples of automation in Southern California include “Flippy,” the burger-flipping robot at CaliBurger in Pasadena who has a brother at Dodger Stadium, and a fleet of eight robots at the Sheraton Los Angeles San Gabriel hotel that can direct visitors to the hotel’s restaurant and deliver luggage and linens to guest rooms.

Walmart is also expanding its free grocery pickup service. That allows shoppers to order groceries online and pick them at their neighborhood store without leaving their cars. The service features 30,000 items, ranging from fresh meat, dairy products and produce, to school supplies, diapers and dog food.

Walmart is increasingly turning to technology to boost customer convenience and in-store efficiency. Stores in Burbank, Palmdale, Lancaster and Santa Clarita recently integrated shelf-scanning robots into their operations. The machines can scan dozens of aisles each hour to track a store’s inventory in real time.

The company has expanded the use of robots to 50 locations throughout the U.S. and says those units won’t result in any job losses.

A double-edged sword?

Walmart’s Pickup Towers undoubtedly make shopping easier, but Dukes said they may prove to be a double-edged sword.

“The challenge for Walmart is that they rely on impulse purchases,” he said. “This will help keep customers and probably get other people to buy from Walmart who otherwise wouldn’t have. But they may not be looking around in the store as much. We really don’t have the data to reveal which side this comes down on.”