Will Walmart’s decision to scrap robots have far-ranging effects?
Walmart has experimented with the use of robots for carrying out a number of functions on sales floors and back rooms in recent years with the goals of improving operational efficiency, reducing costs and freeing up associates to look after the needs of customers in stores and those placing online orders being fulfilled locally. At least one of those experiments is about to end.
In what some may see as the modern version of the John Henry tale, Walmart has decided that robots it has been using to keep track of its in-stock positions on store floors can be replaced at a lower cost with its human associates. The retail giant has discovered that the small army of workers it already has picking store shelves throughout the day to fulfill online grocery orders can more quickly draw attention to low inventory and out-of-stocks than wandering robots.
A Wall Street Journal article also reported that John Furner, CEO of Walmart U.S., had concerns about how the chain’s customers react to seeing robots moving about its stores. The chain had robots conducting inventory management functions at roughly 500 of its 7,400 locations before pulling the plug.
Walmart’s decision to scrap the use of robots appears to be limited to those designed specifically to take in-store inventory. It continues to use floor scrubbing models to assure regular cleaning of its stores. The retailer began rolling out the floor scrubbers in 2018 and has continued to expand their deployment since.
Interest in employing robotics for a variety of tasks has only increased with the novel coronavirus pandemic. Retailers are looking at the use of the automated devices in areas such as salad bars and foodservice operations to help reduce human contact and protect the safety of associates and customers alike.
Other use cases include mini- or micro-fulfillment centers. Walmart began testing its Alphabot solution earlier this year in a fulfillment center built onto the back of one of its supercenters located in New Hampshire. The system uses autonomous carts to retrieve and assemble online orders of frozen, refrigerated and shelf-stable products for pickup and delivery. Associates check each order to assure accuracy and bag the products to go out to customers. Fresh items continue to be picked by humans, as well.
- Walmart Scraps Plan to Have Robots Scan Shelves – The Wall Street Journal
- Walmart: Floor cleaning robots will give associates more time to serve customers – RetailWire
- Where can robots assist in retail’s COVID-19 efforts? – RetailWire
- Can robots keep the salad bar safe? – RetailWire
- Can grocery self-serve bars be safely re-imagined? – RetailWire
- Is Walmart’s Alphabot what the future of e-grocery fulfillment will look like? – RetailWire
- Will socially distanced shopping launch robot delivery for the masses? – RetailWire
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Will Walmart’s decision to scrap the use of robots for taking in-store inventory influence how other retailers approach the technology? Where do you currently see the most beneficial use cases for robotics in retailing and where do you expect it to be five years from now?