Walmart puts robots to work with humans in more stores

Source: Walmart
Oct 27, 2017
George Anderson

A test of shelf-scanning robots in a small number of stores has gone well enough that Walmart has announced it will add the units to 50 additional locations.

The robots, which are about two feet tall, use a camera to determine if items are out of stock, have wrong prices or are missing labels. The information is transmitted to store management so personnel can address problem areas. Walmart, which has been criticized in the past for out-of-stocks, said it is keen to use automation “to handle tasks that are repeatable, predictable and manual.”

The retailer contends that the robots will free up human associates to spend more time serving customers. Walmart has said that the rollout of the technology to additional stores was informed by input from associates and customers at the initial test locations in Arkansas, California and Pennsylvania. The same would be true for any further expansion of the technology.

Walmart is not the only retailer testing robotics to scan shelves to reduce out-of-stocks. In July, Schnucks Markets announced it was running a pilot at three of its stores. The robots were deployed three times a day (morning, afternoon and night) to send real-time information to store associates. The devices were programmed to avoid busy aisles and to stop moving if customers approached.

[Schnucks did not reply to requests for further information on its test by the time of this publication. Further details will be added if they become available.]

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you expect customer service levels in stores such as Walmart to improve with the use of shelf-scanning robots? Can automation be used to address other “repeatable, predictable and manual” tasks performed in stores in order to free up associates to better serve customers?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"If Walmart really does reallocate the work force to working with customers rather than just making it a job reduction plan, it’ll be interesting."
"The video shows a happy marriage between bot and human but, in time, bots will replace humans to some degree. Expect the happiness to fade."
"...these robots could potentially serve to fill a void between actual inventory and inventory represented in their inventory management system."

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23 Comments on "Walmart puts robots to work with humans in more stores"

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Mark Ryski

Determining price can be a significant challenge, especially in large format stores with tens of thousands of SKUs. Deploying robots to assist with price scanning sounds like a practical and effective way to improve service levels. Another pain point, especially in large format stores, is locating product. In studies we have conducted to determine why shoppers don’t buy, finding product was one of the key causes of non-conversion. Having robots assist with product locating is a natural next step.

Max Goldberg

I expect that Walmart and other retailers will decrease the use of humans as they increase the use of robots. Shelf-scanning robots can help solve the problem of out-of-stocks, which should free up associates to better serve customers, but the pull of saving money will be too great for most retailers and the overall number of associates will probably be reduced.

Sterling Hawkins

The use case here for robots is a no-brainer and Walmart is taking another smart step. Farming out repeatable, predictable tasks to automatons will improve effectiveness and efficiency at the same time. It remains to be seen if Walmart will choose to free up their staff to interact with customers or if they’ll use it as an opportunity to reduce the number of associates they have involved.

Art Suriano

I like the idea especially if it will free up associates to spend more time with customers. Strong customer engagement is the one benefit stores have over e-commerce. So if Walmart uses the free time that associates will have for customer engagement and service, while the robots are doing the tasks, it will be a big win. I believe Walmart will because they seem to have a high customer focus. But as other retailers introduce robots doing tasks in their stores, I think we may find the bean counters looking at how they can cut back staff, and that would be a mistake.

Charles Dimov

Let technology do the mundane tasks of identifying errors and stockouts — with the promise of freeing up people to do the shopper engagement tasks. This is a great idea. Relieves the tedium of retailing. However, the important part is that Walmart actually does use this to make more associates available for helping customers. Doing this will help make the experience a more pleasant one. It will be interesting to watch whether service levels do in fact improve.

Chris Petersen, PhD.

One of the very fastest ways for stores to grow sales is to have the items in stock on the shelf. Stock and label checking are tasks easily, accurately and efficiently performed by automation. And the ROI of robot deployment is easily measured.

Now if this was an Amazon store, the “droid” wouldn’t wait for humans, it would restock the shelf as it went.

This is a tangible step toward the inevitable automation. The question is whether retailers will be smart enough to redeploy humans to engage with customers, or replace them for the “cost” savings.

Bob Amster

Customer service will improve if two conditions are met: first these devices must have a high degree of accuracy and, second, the retailer must react and execute when the robots indicate that action is needed. If either of these two components is not working 100 percent the initiative won’t improve significantly, but the opposite is also true.

Seth Nagle

Right on point Bob, identifying the issues is just the tip of the iceberg. I’m excited to see how retailers react once they have this granular data set.

Paula Rosenblum

There seem to be easier ways to do this than robots (something embedded in the shelves), but if Walmart can make it work, and really does reallocate the work force to working with customers rather than just making it a job reduction plan, it’ll be interesting.

Mind you, I still don’t really understand why inventory goes so far out of whack in the first place. But I guess it must be so.

Neil Saunders

While critical, constantly checking for mispricing, incorrectly located items or out-of-stocks would be an expensive use of labor. Automating the process makes sense and should improve things for customers in a cost-effective way.

What I like is the fact Walmart recognizes the importance of humans in performing other, value-added tasks and is using robots to expand the time they have to do these things. This is one of the reasons I am less pessimistic about automation and robotics than some: I think there is room and a role for both in the future of retail.

Ryan Mathews

I’d say the jury is still out. To date, the robots can only point out an out-of-stock situation. It takes a human to rectify the problem. So stocking levels still depend on humans in the end. And that may be a problem since these are presumably the same humans that didn’t replenish inventory on their own. Now, there seems to be no question that robots will continue to be integrated with human retail workforces — and not just for routine tasks. As advances in AI and robotics continue there are a variety of applications that an automated worker will be called on to address. That said, I don’t think robots pose a real threat to human workforces, at least in the near term.

Ben Ball

” … it is keen to use automation “to handle tasks that are repeatable, predictable and manual.”

Sounds like a Jeff Bezos quote to me.

Of course Walmart (and other retailers) will do this. The hard part will still be getting fallible humans to actually go fix the problems that the robots identify.

Cate Trotter

The theory is good here. If robots can deal with things like checking shelf inventory, then staff can concentrate on the more important task of helping the customer. Retail staff are often pulled in many directions, so offloading certain fixed tasks will certainly make their life easier and should make them more available to improve customer service. As others have mentioned, the question is, how far will the automation go and what will the reality be for staff?

Ken Lonyai

Robots in retail will be as ubiquitous as cash registers, it’s just a matter of when. Inventory scanning robots have been around for quite a while, so this pilot is significant because it’s being done by a retailer with two million+ employees, many of which currently do what the robots will be doing more accurately.

The video shows a happy marriage between bot and human but, in time, bots will replace humans to some degree. Expect the happiness to fade.

While we all agree that the human factor is important to retail, when robot ubiquity is reached, their capabilities expanded, and technology costs reduced, expect many retailers to find it difficult not to cut floor staff, to their own detriment or not.

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.

Improved customer growth service levels depend upon the employees — are they trained well? Are there enough employees deployed around the store? The introduction of robots will not necessarily result in better customer service. There are lots of variables. However, the possibility exists and the use of robots will continue. Experimentation is a good idea.

Seth Nagle

I would expect customer service levels to rise as having employees execute these tasks is labor-intensive and currently not that efficient. If robots are conducting this mundane tasks, that frees up more employees to stock shelves, work registers and organize the back room — all things that enhance the shopper’s experience.

However we’ve seen this before, identifying the issue is only part of the solution; retailers need to implement new policies and procedures to effectively correct them and that will be the real challenge.

On-shelf availability has been plaguing the industry for years and it sounds like these robots might be the most economical solution to improving it yet.

Jackie Breen

This has the potential to improve customer service levels in several ways. The first and most obvious is the ability for associates to be able to focus their time on helping the customer. The second, and I what I see to be the most valuable, is that these robots could potentially serve to fill a void between actual inventory and inventory represented in their inventory management system (and ultimately what is shown as available online). As retailers expand their omnichannel strategy, they must identify efficient means of accurately keeping track of inventory in real time — technology like robots could play a large role.

Jett McCandless

Robots are absolutely capable of driving the customer experience forward through automated processes. The real test is going to be what systems they connect to in order to drive those processes. You have to have quality APIs connecting to good data to make your automated process react to the right events.

Anne Howe

I’m always interested in how Walmart addresses the interaction between associates and shoppers. Even if associates have time to tell customers what the robots are doing to help keep shelves stocked, that’s a win-win!

Adam Silverman

Having accurate inventory in stores is critical to drive a unified commerce experience for customers, as well as improve operational excellence for retailers. Retailers will increasingly employ technologies such as robotics, RFID, and connected shelves to perform these tasks, allowing associates to pivot from operational tasks to engaging with customers and creating exceptional experiences. The future of work is changing, and the workforce technology industry will shift from providing traditional task solutions to offering collaboration and knowledge-based applications that empower associates to drive top-line business results.

Ricardo Belmar

This sounds like a very practical and positive use case for robots in the store that could relieve associates from mundane, repeatable tasks, allowing them to focus on delivering an excellent customer experience. Provided that it’s followed up with the right training for associates on the other tasks they’ll now have more time for and the new tasks the robots will generate for them to solve those out-of-stock situations. The risk of course is that over time the development of the robots will encroach on ever more tasks that get defined as “mundane” and/or “repeatable.” For now, Walmart is showing a great blending of the robot/human workforce.

Min-Jee Hwang

The data retailers can gain from shelf scanning is priceless. Knowing when items are out of stock and restocking as soon as possible helps boost sales and lowers shopper frustration. Brands will also be interested in this data to ensure their prices and displays are in-line with the guidelines they set out for retailers. I’m not sure we’ll see robots in every store in the future, especially when stores are fuller than usual with holiday shoppers that would cause the robots to stop too frequently.

The bottom line is; providing employees with the information they need to do their jobs better and making the in-store experience smoother for shoppers are wins for everyone.

Cameron Conaway

The key phrase here is “with humans.”

Much has been made about Walmart’s incredible digital growth, but I’d love to see a piece exploring how they are leveraging in-store technologies (such as these robots) to improve the human-to-human customer experience.

When it comes to in-store experiences, inventory matters, sure. But so does feeling the warmth of someone willing and able to help.

Will these robots allow associates to be more available and responsive to customers? As Sterling Hawkins mentioned, I’m interested in seeing if Walmart is envisioning this as a way to free up or get rid of in-store associates.

"If Walmart really does reallocate the work force to working with customers rather than just making it a job reduction plan, it’ll be interesting."
"The video shows a happy marriage between bot and human but, in time, bots will replace humans to some degree. Expect the happiness to fade."
"...these robots could potentially serve to fill a void between actual inventory and inventory represented in their inventory management system."

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