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 similar results.

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


(END) Dow Jones Newswires

April 21, 2021 17:07 ET (21:07 GMT)

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