Project spread­ing

Wal-Mart pickup pro­gram ex­pand­ing into more stores na­tion­wide.

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - ROB­BIE NEISWANGER

The large, or­ange tower that made its first ap­pear­ance in one of the state’s Wal-Mart stores last fall is be­com­ing a no­tice­able fea­ture in sev­eral other lo­ca­tions na­tion­wide.

The Bentonville-based re­tailer said it is mov­ing for­ward with plans to in­stall pickup tow­ers in about 100 U.S. stores, ex­pand­ing a pro­gram that be­gan at the Wal-Mart su­per­center in Rogers. The struc­tures stand 16 feet tall and 8 feet wide and were de­signed to work like a vend­ing ma­chine, dis­pens­ing gen­eral mer­chan­dise for cus­tomers who have placed or­ders on­line.

Ja­son Shaf­fer, se­nior direc­tor of cen­tral op­er­a­tions for U.S. stores, said the com­pany’s de­ci­sion to roll out the project on a larger scale came af­ter the suc­cess­ful test.

“We haven’t re­leased any num­bers right now, but I will say we are very happy with the cus­tomer re­sponse,” Shaf­fer said this week. “Num­bers con­tinue to grow. Uti­liza­tion of the tower con­tin­ues to grow as our as­so­ciates get ac­cli­mated with it and the cus­tomers get ac­cli­mated with it. So we’ve been very happy with how it’s gone.”

The tow­ers, which are pro­duced by Es­to­nia-based startup Cleveron, are large enough to hold about 300 pack­ages. Cus­tomers who or­der items on­line can walk up to the tower and scan the bar­codes from their pur­chase re­ceipts. The door slides open and the prod­uct is dis­pensed.

Large items such as tele­vi­sions still must be taken to cus­tomers by em­ploy­ees, but Shaf­fer said Wal-Mart es­ti­mates that 90 per­cent of prod­ucts or­dered on­line by cus­tomers can be dis­trib­uted through ei­ther pickup tow­ers or lock­ers that are also be­ing tested by the com­pany.

Wal-Mart be­lieves the ma­chines will pro­vide a con­ve­nient op­tion for cus­tomers, elim­i­nat­ing the wait time and other draw­backs that can oc­cur when try­ing to col­lect on­line or­ders.

“The big­gest com­plaints we hear from our pickup business are we don’t have as­so­ciates there,” Shaf­fer said. “I can’t find an as­so­ci­ate. It takes 20 min­utes to pick up. All of that is elim­i­nated with the tower. The tower is there 24 hours a day, and you walk in and get your pack­age any­time. That’s re­ally that time sav­ing and con­ve­nience we’re try­ing to drive.”

It’s also tap­ping into a grow­ing trend in re­tail, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent study.

Fifty per­cent of re­spon­dents to a JDA con­sumer sur­vey said they’ve used buy on­line, pick up in store ser­vices in the pre­vi­ous 12 months. It was an in­crease from 35 per­cent two years ago.

“The tow­ers are also yet an­other ex­am­ple of how Wal­Mart is tack­ling con­ve­nience from in­nu­mer­able an­gles,” said Carol Spieck­er­man, a re­tail ex­pert and pres­i­dent of Spieck­er­man Re­tail. “In­stead of at­tempt­ing to steer shop­pers into a cou­ple of op­tions, Wal-Mart con­tin­ues to build a base of de­liv­ery op­tions/mech­a­nisms that en­sure shop­pers have lit­tle rea­son to shop else­where.”

The tow­ers are one piece of Wal-Mart’s strat­egy to in­te­grate its store foot­print and grow­ing on­line business in the re­tail bat­tle against Ama­zon. com and other com­peti­tors.

Ear­lier this year, Wal-Mart be­gan of­fer­ing dis­counts for cus­tomers who chose to or­der items on­line and pick them up in stores. The com­pany con­tin­ues to ex­pand its on­line gro­cery pickup ser­vice with plans to have it avail­able at about 1,100 lo­ca­tions by the end of the year. Three stores — in­clud­ing one lo­ca­tion in North­west Arkansas — are us­ing em­ploy­ees on a vol­un­tary ba­sis to de­liver or­ders to cus­tomers on their way home from a work shift.

Wal-Mart is ex­per­i­ment­ing with other click-and-col­lect tech­nol­ogy as well, in­clud­ing an au­to­mated gro­cery pickup kiosk. The kiosk, which is lo­cated in the park­ing lot of a Wal-Mart su­per­center in Warr Acres, Okla., will op­er­ate 24 hours a day and al­low cus­tomers to place gro­cery or­ders on­line and quickly col­lect them at the kiosk.

“Over the past few years, Wal-Mart has be­come quite pro­fi­cient at test­ing and im­ple­ment­ing any num­ber of con­cepts or scrap­ping those that aren’t pan­ning out,” Spieck­er­man said. “The will­ing­ness to step out and the courage to roll out are key to re­tail suc­cess th­ese days.”

Wal-Mart is strate­gi­cally se­lect­ing where it is in­stalling pickup tow­ers. The com­pany de­clined to dis­close the full list of about 100 stores where pickup tow­ers will ap­pear over the next sev­eral months, but an­nounce­ments have been made in places like Glen­pool, Okla.; Gil­bert, Ariz.; Ar­bu­tus, Md.; and Auburn, Ala.

No other Arkansas stores have had tow­ers in­stalled, but a Wal-Mart spokesman said there will be more com­ing to the state by the end of the year as the com­pany’s ef­forts in its pickup business ac­cel­er­ate.

“We’re mak­ing huge in­vest­ments in our pickup business,” Shaf­fer said. “The pickup tower is kind of the cherry on top. It’s the best we’ve got as far as the tech­nol­ogy we’re putting out there right now.”

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