Walmart: Floor cleaning robots will give associates more time to serve customers

Discussion
Source: Walmart
Dec 06, 2018
George Anderson

Walmart announced earlier this week that it is deploying robots to 360 of its stores to clean floors. The machines, which resemble Zambonis, are designed with autonomous navigation technology that allows them to clean up even as customers shop in the aisles.

The Auto-C (Autonomous Cleaner) robots, which are currently in 78 Walmart locations, use an operating system created by Brain Corp. The machines are initially driven by store associates through the store to map the landscape for subsequent travels sans humans. The robots use sensors to scan and navigate their surroundings in order to protect the safety of people and property. Each machine collects data, which is tied into a reporting system on the cloud.

John Crecelius, VP of central operations for Walmart, said the robots will serve as “a powerful tool in helping our associates complete repetitive tasks so they can focus on other tasks within role and spend more time serving customers.”

A post on the Walmart blog estimates that an associate spends two hours per day using the non-autonomous scrubbing machines currently being used in its stores. “Instead of riding the scrub machine, a Walmart associate can be tidying restrooms, dust-mopping the checkout aisles, or engaging with customers,” according to the blog.

Walmart has been active in using technology to improve efficiency and reduce costs within its business. Earlier this year, the chain announced it was expanding a test of shelf-scanning robots and it has continued to roll out Pickup towers for online orders in stores across the country.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Will the deployment of Auto-C scrubbing robots in Walmart’s stores positively affect the retailer’s ability to serve shoppers? How will the use of robotic technology affect the role and scope of the retail workforce over the next five to 10 years?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"I’m not buying that having an autonomous floor scrubber will therefore improve in-store customer service, or effectively free up associates to serve shoppers."
"A clean floor (or entire store) is good for the overall customer experience. That doesn’t necessarily mean the customer will be better served."
"Hats off to Walmart’s PR department on the customer-centric spin!"

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19 Comments on "Walmart: Floor cleaning robots will give associates more time to serve customers"


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Dave Bruno
BrainTrust

While these machines feel like a small step for efficiency, they don’t feel like a giant leap for customer service levels at Walmart …

Mark Ryski
BrainTrust

Getting robots to do repetitive tasks like cleaning the floor, is a practical use case for the technology. Theoretically this should free up associate time to focus on delivering service. The reality, however, may be very different.

Instead of freeing up associates, this may very well lead to a reduction in the number of associates needed. If you look at the impact robots have had on the auto manufacturing industry, the net impact is a reduction in labor. Robots and automation continue to impact all areas of the economy and retail is part of this story — robots for cleaning floors today … completely autonomous stores in the future?

Chris Buecker
BrainTrust

No, scrubbing robots will be used to bring costs further down. Headcount per store will be reduced further. It will not be used to serve customers better.

Ken Lonyai
BrainTrust

An absolute non-story. As told, the robot will free up two hours of one associate’s day. That’s supposed to impact customer experience?

Nice job by Walmart PR getting some headlines per the Amazon playbook.

BTW — can’t wait for the Instagram and YouTube videos of people hopping on the machine!

Ray Riley
BrainTrust

Earlier this week we were concerned associates at Walmart would be preoccupied fulfilling out of stock orders on mobile apps. And just like that — Walmart responds with the answer. I think this is more smoke and mirrors from Walmart, and I’m not buying that having an autonomous floor scrubber will therefore improve in-store customer service, or effectively free up associates to serve shoppers.

Art Suriano
BrainTrust

I don’t see if positively or negatively making a difference. The customers at first will be amused and curious but we are living in a world full of new and exciting technology, and customers have no problem with it. I’ve been through some malls that have robots acting as security assistants. Customers look and just keep walking, so I don’t think it will be any different for Walmart. If associates are allowed to spend more time with customers the competition here will be the bean counters figuring how much they can reduce staff as robots pick up more tasks. Every time associates are allowed to engage with customers, it leads to an increase in sales. So hopefully, Walmart will promote that and, if so, this investment will be a win for everyone.

Sid K. Hasan
Guest

Robotics, AI and machine learning are only as good as the data we serve them. Now, the one aspect of automation that WE cannot combat is speed.

A CPU’s (robot) ability to think and contemplate and execute over time will outpace us.

Moore’s Law holds true today as it did nearly 50 years ago — I believe Dr. Moore predicted speed would double for the next decade (~1965).

Walmart is not a retailer. It is not a brand. It is a marketing company that sells CPG and more.

Automation is here to stay.

Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

This is not revolutionary. However it’s an important example of automation which reduces labor expenses and/or allows labor to be employed in more effective areas that can generate a better return. I expect to see much more of this in 2019 and beyond.

Gene Detroyer
BrainTrust

Really?!

Better customer service and cleaning your floors are two entirely different decisions. If you need better customer service, focus on better customer service. If you need more efficient ways to get your floors cleaned, get a robot.

These decisions are totally exclusive from one another.

Dick Seesel
BrainTrust

I’ll join the skeptics on this thread: Robotic floor cleaning may be a sign of “things to come,” but I doubt that Walmart will redeploy any cost savings into more customer service. (The exception might be the human capital needed to execute Walmart’s omnichannel strategies.) If anything, I’d expect Walmart to keep a close eye on Amazon’s experiments with totally automated retail, to see how they can leverage fewer associates into more cost savings.

Cathy Hotka
BrainTrust

Come on, now. Every retailer that deploys robots is going to say that they’re there to enhance customer service. If you fall for that, I have some outstanding beachfront property in Nebraska that might interest you. Can shelf-stocking robots be far behind?

Kai Clarke
BrainTrust

Of course the inclusion of scrubbing robots in stores will positively affect Walmart’s customer service. The real question is, how much will this cost and should this cost instead be spent on enhanced customer service training and hiring more employees? It appears that robotic technology is quite expensive, but perhaps less expensive than hiring another worker. So long as this is true, having a robot help clean up aisles is a positive step forward.

Shep Hyken
BrainTrust

A clean floor (or entire store) is good for the overall customer experience. That doesn’t necessarily mean the customer will be better served. Walmart associates will play a bigger role in that area.

Rich Kizer
BrainTrust

Will the Auto-C scrubbers help improve customer service levels? I don’t think so. I have never seen a store sales associate cleaning the floors, so their service performance won’t change. It might be easier on the store maintenance crew. Let’s hope they are moved to other areas of the store to improve service rather than be replaced by a robot.

Lauren Goldberg
BrainTrust

I don’t see this as a heightened customer experience play, but an exercise to create a more efficient labor model. As retailers continue to invest in automated technology, I hope that there is a fair split between initiatives that reduce costs and ones that improve the shopping experience. Hats off to Walmart’s PR department on the customer-centric spin!

James Tenser
BrainTrust

For Walmart, deployment of Auto-C floor-cleaning devices in 360 stores amounts to a meme — worthy in-market test, not an enduring change in operations. The tech may seem more amusing than exotic to shoppers — Roomba has sold about 10 million robotic vacuums for home use so far, and imitators are adding to the category tally.

If these devices save two hours of employee time per day per store (as the video states), at $15/hour, the math works out to $11,000 per year in labor savings, plus the depreciation write-off, offset by ongoing maintenance costs.

We don’t know the unit cost of an Auto-C device or what their operational life will be, but you can bet Walmart plans a careful payback analysis.

I tend to doubt there will be a one-to-one shift of those 14 labor hours per week to customer service once all the data are in.

Craig Sundstrom
Guest

Based on the poll response it appears most people feel the machines will indeed free people for other tasks … like filling out unemployment claims. And I can’t disagree that’s something that COULD happen.

But of course it doesn’t have to: as automation becomes more widespread — and this is really just a continuation of a centuries-old trend, not something that’s new as techies (and Luddites) sometimes proclaim — workers can be freed for more creative tasks, improving the sales experience and maintaining current profit levels while, hopefully, increasing them in the long run. At least that’s the dream if the “activist investors” can be kept at bay.

David Naumann
BrainTrust

No, I don’t see how scrubbing robots will positively improve the customer experience. These robots are very expensive and they are a replacement for employees. Walmart can’t maintain the same staffing levels and invest heavily in incremental costs for robots.

From a public perception perspective, retailers claim that investments in automation like self-service and robots will allow them to shift staff from repetitive tasks to customer-facing value added services. However, in reality, they can’t afford to to that. We will continue to see retailers infuse more automation in the store at the expense of jobs.

Mike Osorio
BrainTrust

It is highly likely that the rise of robotics in retail will lead to reduced headcount for labor, vs. being a driver of service. But the possible labor redirection is not going to be material.
When used well, these floor cleaning robots can be conversation starters with customers that add to the potential for positive interactions. And certainly taking the opportunity to “sell” it as an improvement to service is a good move. Overall it is a good thing.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"I’m not buying that having an autonomous floor scrubber will therefore improve in-store customer service, or effectively free up associates to serve shoppers."
"A clean floor (or entire store) is good for the overall customer experience. That doesn’t necessarily mean the customer will be better served."
"Hats off to Walmart’s PR department on the customer-centric spin!"

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