Earlier this month, a Walmart superstore in Warr Acres, Oklahoma debuted a 20-foot-by-80-foot, self-serving kiosk. It's a mighty edifice that houses freezers and fridges, operating all day, seven days a week, in the parking lot of the store.
The kiosk operates something like a large vending machine. Customers approach the kiosk and enter a five-digit code they received after placing orders online. They must have purchased at least $30 worth of groceries. Within seconds, a locker containing their bagged orders opens up for retrieval.
This pilot project is the first of its kind for Walmart, though the chain has flirted with various streamlining innovations in the past three years, from online orders to home delivery services to smaller vending machines within stores. This move seems to be Walmart’s own signal that it’s trying to jostle for dominance in the quickening race to become the Redbox of American supermarkets.
Walmart’s most direct competitor is Amazon, who’s recently waltzed into this space with its AmazonFresh Pickup service within Seattle. It’s somewhat similar to Walmart’s giant vending machine from the future. You can pick up your pre-bagged groceries within 15 minutes of ordering online, and they’ll be loaded into your car by Amazon employees. There’s no minimum order charge.
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Walmart’s been mum about when this project will expand to other cities, though expansion seems to be their aim, given the fact that they first announced their intention to debut this project in March. The only support they currently offer for customers who run into any trouble is a 24-hour phone line that’s accessible from the parking lot.
Convenience is a double-edged sword: Look no further than Amazon's own cashier-free grocery store, mired with issues that result from assuming that human behavior can be automated easily. How Walmart's service works out the kinks in a service that’s so depersonalized will determine whether this great, big dispensary from the future will change the way America gets its groceries. For the time-crunched and interaction-averse, though, this certainly sounds like a dream.
Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.