Don't bother to wave at the driver when you see a Walmart grocery truck go by — in some cases, there won't be one.
Since August, Walmart has been operating two box trucks loaded with online grocery orders — but without a driver — on a 7-mile loop for 12 hours a day, dropping off the items at a Walmart Neighborhood Market grocery store in Bentonville, Arkansas. But here's the real kicker: The orders are picked up not just from any store, but from a Walmart fulfillment center called a "dark store" that isn't open to the public.
After getting approval for the driverless trucks from the Arkansas State Highway Commission, Walmart started the program, a partnership with Silicon Valley startup Gatik, at the end of 2020. It's just the latest move from Walmart, the nation's biggest seller of grocery items, as it works to transition to a "hub and spoke" model of grocery delivery through which the dark stores serve several retail stores and are located closer to customers. Walmart also thinks the driverless trucks will benefit employees, allowing them to focus on "higher level" tasks like picking and packing online orders and assisting customers.
Of course, Walmart's competitors are hot on its heels when it comes to finding more efficient ways to serve customers. Kroger is testing out automated order fulfillment in Florida using a massive robot-filled warehouse, but no stores. Amazon, which acquired Whole Foods a few years ago, has also opened Amazon Go stores where shoppers simply walk in, grab what they need, and walk out — no cashiers required. Albertsons has even been testing smiling remote-controlled delivery carts for Safeway orders in California.