A 16-foot-high orange tower greets shoppers walking into the Walmart store in Arbutus, a symbol in some ways of how important online sales have become to the retail giant.
The self-service kiosk, a high-tech vending machine of sorts, is designed to deliver merchandise ordered online in a matter of seconds after a customer approaches a touchscreen and scans a bar code sent to a smartphone.
Unlike in-store pickup departments, often located in out-of-the-way back areas, the tower near the store entrance can't be missed. Rather than employees checking for an order, a touchscreen walks customers through the process. Orders are then delivered through the tower.
"We know that customers are increasing their want and desire to shop online, but how do we make that experience in stores even more efficient, more seamless and easier for them to walk through the door, retrieve their purchase and get on with their life?" said Debbie Zyskowski, a Walmart market manager for Baltimore-area stores. "The pickup tower really accomplishes all that."
The company started testing the towers in stores earlier this year and brought the first one to Maryland last week, to the newly remodeled Arbutus store. The technology continues the trend of automation that has crept into most industries, particularly retail.
But it's also another bid in the mass discounter's effort to win the battle against Amazon and dominate e-commerce, adding to features such as online grocery pickup and same-day pickup. The rivalry has been heating up in earnest since Wal-Mart Stores Inc. acquired internet retailer Jet.com in September for $3 billion, and Jet.com' s founder, Marc Lore, began directing Walmart's domestic e-commerce operation.
Amazon, for its part, has continued to shake up retail, announcing in June that it plans to gain a foothold in hundreds of stores across the U.S. with the planned $13.7 billion purchase of grocer Whole Foods.
On the online front, "Walmart got crushed up until recently," said Matthew Bertulli, co-founder and CEO of Demac Media, a Toronto-based e-commerce agency. With its new leadership, "Walmart is going to get a lot more aggressive...They are investing crazy amounts of money into digital. Walmart is going to start playing Amazon's game."
It's too soon to tell whether pickup towers will become a fixture in Walmart stores or end up as more of a novelty, as Walmart looks for ways to use store locations to gain an advantage in e-commerce over Amazon, Bertulli said,
"The one thing that Walmart has that Amazon would love is the physical store infrastructure," Bertulli said. "The average American isn't very far from a Walmart store, so we're still in a place where it is for, the short term, faster to go out and pick something up."
Walmart has installed its towers in just 15 stores, a tiny fraction of its 4,500 locations, including the unveiling this week at the Walmart Supercenter on Washington Boulevard, selected because of the store's "strong and successful" online business, Zyskowski said. In a promotional video, Walmart says it is adding more than 100 towers across the U.S., and Zyskowski said towers could come to additional Baltimore-area stores next year. In such stores, towers will replace the store pickup centers where customers now retrieve online orders.
Each tower can hold about 300 orders, anything that Walmart sells online except perishable food, liquids such as laundry detergent, and items larger than a medium-size microwave. Items that workers have loaded into the tower are delivered to a front window by a system of shelves and conveyor belts that is invisible to the customer. Shoppers whose packages are larger than a microwave are told via screen message that an employee will bring it to them.
The tower appealed to Jodi Burns, 37, who was shopping Thursday with her 4-year-old niece and decided to check whether shoes she'd ordered online had come in.
"That's awesome," the Arbutus resident said after entering an order number. Even after learning her order was not in the tower — she'd checked in before receiving the required email alert — she still liked the idea.
"Back there, it's forever," she said, waving toward the former pickup department where she'd had to wait in line. "This is convenient. It's really fast."
Whitney Edwards relaxed in one of the armchairs flanking the tower while waiting for an employee to retrieve a fire pit she'd ordered. The item was too large to fit in the tower. Regardless, the 33-year-old said she favored the new pickup system.
"It's convenient because you walk up and grab it and go," she said.
Other customers weren't so sure. One woman waited for employees to bring her a large-size order and questioned why the towers weren't closer to storage areas.
Another shopper, Karen Gorsche, came to the store thinking the activity table she'd ordered for her 5-year-old grandson was ready, but she had to wait when her order was not found right away.,
Bertulli said such problems often are common in filling customer's online orders, but typically they occur behind the scenes rather than front and center at a store.
"When you buy online … the average person has no idea what went into getting it to your house," Bertulli said. "All of a sudden, you have this shiny tower and you're exposing the supply chain to customers who have never seen it. Even the best [systems] aren't perfect."