Will Walmart clean up with its robotic workforce?

Discussion
Images: Walmart
Apr 10, 2019
George Anderson

Walmart wants its associates to deal with its customers. Leave the other stuff to the robots.

In a company blog post, Walmart announced plans to expand the use of robotics and other “smart assistants” with the goal of running its stores more efficiently, freeing associates from mundane tasks such as cleaning floors and checking shelf inventory while enabling them to “server customers face-to-face on the sales floor.”

Tests conducted last year showed that technologies such as the “Auto-C” floor cleaners improve the shopping experience for customers and the work environment for associates. The retailer plans to add the robot floor scrubbers to 1,500 stores.

Walmart’s commitment to automation won’t end with brighter floors. The retailer also said it will add 300 additional “Auto-S” shelf scanners to its stores to reduce out-of-stock positions and improve pricing accuracy.

The chain also touted other automated technology that is enabling it to improve both efficiency and effectiveness at the store level, including FAST Unloaders that share data with Auto-S units to quickly move products off of incoming trucks to get them to shelves based on need. The ultimate goal, according to the blog post, is to give “customers what they want, when they want it.”

Walmart Automation: Pickup Tower, Floor Scrubbers, Self-Scanners, FAST Unloaders – Video source: Walmart

Walmart Automation: Pickup Tower, Floor Scrubbers, Self-Scanners, FAST Unloaders – Video source: Walmart

Walmart also announced that it is continuing to use automation to build on the chain’s omnichannel initiatives. Specifically, it plans to add automated Pickup Towers at 900 additional stores. The units, which Walmart equates to “a giant vending machine,” are used to store online orders for customers.

“Our associates immediately understood the opportunity for the new technology to free them up from focusing on tasks that are repeatable, predictable and manual,” said John Crecelius, senior vice president of central operations for Walmart U.S. in a statement. “It allows them time to focus more on selling merchandise and serving customers, which they tell us have always been the most exciting parts of working in retail.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you see Walmart as an innovator when it comes to the use of automation to operate both more efficiently from a business perspective and more effectively from the customer’s? What other retailers are noteworthy for using automation and robotics in ways that move the needle for customers, associates and vendors?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"Now Walmart should train its customer-facing associates in the art and science of human influence. Shoppers want and need human interaction."
"If Walmart used robots to only improve its in-stock inventory tracking it could be a gigantic win."
"Walmart’s associates already do a good job of being helpful to shoppers and the added time will only raise the service levels."

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26 Comments on "Will Walmart clean up with its robotic workforce?"


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Mark Ryski
BrainTrust

Walmart is an innovator and leader. Using technology to manage the repetitive, mundane activities and freeing up associates to serve customers is sensible. And deploying technology to get products on the shelves faster is a win for shoppers and employees. The cost of deploying and maintaining this technology must be significant, but the savings in labor, time and improved service make the ROI attractive. While there are lots of retailers deploying interesting technology – Target comes to mind – Walmart is clearly leading brick-and-mortar retailer on the in-store innovation/technology front.

Bethany Allee
BrainTrust

Walmart is definitely an innovator and technology leader. They’re on a path for robots to take care of the easy stuff and for associates to take care of customers. This means they have a clear understanding and strategy of the feasibility of integrating not only robots, but AI and machine learning, too. Totally exciting to watch this roll out!

Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

Walmart is focusing on exactly the right areas for automation: routine tasks that are essential, require little human interaction, and take time. I have never been an advocate of the view that robots will replace humans, but I am an adherent to the belief that robots will free humans to focus on more added-value human tasks. It seems to me that is the direction in which Walmart is headed.

Bob Phibbs
BrainTrust

While I’m no fan of the behemoth, you do have to give it to them for pioneering much around how to make their brick-and-mortar stores the stars of their universe. Removing the mundane helps them attract better employees and increase worker satisfaction for not having to do repetitive mind-numbing tasks. What that means for a legion of workers in retail is another story.

Art Suriano
BrainTrust

In theory, it sounds great. The idea of robots taking over the mundane tasks freeing up associates to assist customers is excellent. In Walmart’s case, I believe they will do precisely that, however, will they be tempted to lay off some staff looking to save money in the future? The robots do come at a cost, and they’ll require ongoing maintenance. So only time will tell. Regarding other retailers, when they start placing robots in their stores, I firmly believe many of them will make the mistake of thinning out staff even further to save money.

Paula Rosenblum
BrainTrust

We have been talking about this for some time. Find a way to optimize non-selling functions so that associates can spend more time in customer-facing activities. This does that exactly well.

Of course, Walmart will lose all those “props” if they then lay off associates instead of re-deploy them. But if they continue in this way, it’s innovative and smart.

Chris Petersen, PhD.
BrainTrust

While the press is filled with stories about automated checkout, Walmart has been innovating the more mundane, behind the scenes activities required to make stores successful. You can’t buy what is not on a store shelf. FAST unloaders and Auto-S units expedite shelf stocking. Plus there is all the additional real time data along the chain to enhance and speed up predictive analytics for better inventory management. The additional pickup towers are another sign that Walmart is omnichannel focused and leveraging automation to improve click and collect. Automation is a critical pillar of future retail success. Walmart is a great example of applying technology to improve operations and customer experience.

Zel Bianco
BrainTrust

Walmart’s associates already do a good job of being helpful to shoppers and the added time will only raise the service levels. The automation that is being used to scan the shelves and the FAST unloaders will also improve the shopper experience as they will most likely find what they are looking for. When shoppers have the additional option of pick up from a vending machine, like “Carvana” is doing with cars, it will all add up to having Walmart continue to use automation technology to not only help them lead the way with their supply chain and back office operations but please the shopper with pricing, product availability and ease of pick up and fulfillment. There are other retailers that are doing this but Walmart seems to be the one that may occasionally fall slightly behind, but not for long.

Phil Masiello
BrainTrust

One thing Walmart has done better than any business of any kind is to remove inefficiencies in its supply chain. From point of manufacture to point of sale, they have continued to reduce costs. The effect has been lower operating costs which allow for lower prices. Using technology to remove mundane tasks is a great strategy and continues this trend.

Walmart has always innovated in removing costs, however, others have not followed. Amazon would be the only other retailer that is on the cutting edge of using technology to strip out costs.

Lee Peterson
BrainTrust

To their credit Walmart has definitely leaned more on innovation these last three years and oh by the way, competed with Amazon quite nicely while doing so. The simple idea that machines can do the stocking, etc., while humans talk to the humans in their stores may sound like a “duh,” but is actually quite brilliant. I haven’t heard Brian Cornell come up with anything that makes that much sense.

Walmart’s “gorilla in the corner” though is the fact that they have 4,500+ stores. Stores! Remember those? Hopefully, the next thing we’ll see from them is the idea of turning those potential problems into assets by converting them to the half distribution center and half playground model. Being that close to the customer could be an advantage if they continue to let innovation lead, which I believe they will.

Anne Howe
BrainTrust

Walmart employees and shoppers should be thrilled by this forward thinking move. Now Walmart should train its customer-facing associates in the art and science of human influence. Shoppers want and need human interaction. Don’t leave this important piece of the service puzzle to chance!

Cathy Hotka
BrainTrust

If Walmart can address out-of-stocks in a meaningful way with this technology, they’ll not only recognize better sales, but also mop the floor with the competition.

Rich Kizer
BrainTrust

I’m joining the other BrainTrust members here who are in agreement that this is clearly a big positive loaded with positive potential. I think that customer interaction with staff must most assuredly be addressed, and that a thorough on-going training program of face to face customer interactions, that elevate customer experiences and satisfaction, must be a constant.

Ryan Mathews
BrainTrust

We’ll see. Obviously Walmart continues to be an innovator in applied automation. The real issues here are: a.) will employees feel “freed” or threatened?; b.) will shoppers see a direct benefit in the form of improved service?; c.) how will shoppers and local media handle the whole “man versus machine” issue; d.) will the robots work as planned? How easy will it be to maintain them? And finally, after the system has been in place what do the cost/benefit numbers look like long-term? As always, the devil is in the details.

Dave Bruno
BrainTrust

I am most interested in the “Auto-S” shelf scanners that constantly update inventory. While the cleaning robots are awesome for reducing associate time spent on tasks that keep them from assisting shoppers, more accurate in-store inventory will have a profound impact on replenishment, in-stock positions, and e-commerce conversions.

Ed Rosenbaum
BrainTrust

I agree that Walmart has become an innovator and technology leader (along with Amazon). I can see the use of robots to do repetitive jobs is also something important. But I disagree with a couple points made: First, using robots to scrub floors is not going to free associates to help customers. Those associates who previously scrubbed floors had little interaction with customers. Most of that work is usually done when store traffic is slow or the store is closed. My sad guess is this is going to put some employees out of a job. But I am not sure Walmart will agree with that and certainly will not confirm it.

Yes, I can see robots taking over janitorial jobs such as floor maintenance and realize it is the future we have to expect. My concern becomes what happens to the people who have been performing these jobs admirably and how will they be retrained to become productive contributors again?

Andrew Blatherwick
BrainTrust

It is a very laudable aim to use technology and robots that create more time for employees to spend time helping customers. Anything that increases customer-facing time has to improve the offering. However, one has to wonder if this is the long-term aim or if it will lead to less staff in stores and eventually less customer facing staff. Staff and customers will react if they see numbers of people in employment suffer as a result of robotics. In other areas that are not customer-facing like warehouses, online picking, etc., robots can improve efficiency and add value, and they are less visible therefore less contentious. The use of data and automation to get stock off vehicles and on to the shelf faster has to be a good thing, provided you do not spend more time searching for the item on the vehicle!

Oliver Guy
BrainTrust

I love the approach. Ocado is a big user of robotic technology – albeit in a grocery warehouse rather than a customer facing store – many would argue that their proposition would not be possible without robotics. I love the way Walmart is jumping into this – bringing it into the norm.

Doug Garnett
BrainTrust

Moving Roombas into the store is a pretty good idea — especially maintaining the environment better without taking staff away from customers.

This appears to be good use of technology – now the proof will be seen in the implementation.

However, it’s good to see the focus on where tech always does best: freeing humans to interact with humans by removing the mundane, repetitive tasks. Far better than other chains which wanted to shift humans to mundane tasks by having the robots interact with the customer.

Ken Cassar
BrainTrust
Ken Cassar
Vice President, Research, Shoptalk
4 months 13 days ago

If Walmart used robots to only improve its in-stock inventory tracking it could be a gigantic win. 50 percent of Walmart’s online volume now is being picked from store inventory, between click and carry and store-based delivery, but inventory uncertainty can dramatically hamper the effectiveness of those offerings.

Cate Trotter
BrainTrust

As others have said it’s great to see Walmart embracing innovation so willingly. I think they’ve also been wise to concentrate robots on mundance tasks rather than have them interacting with customers. A human member of staff is much better suited for dealing with people in terms of understanding, context, advice etc. There’s nothing more frustrating than talking to a robot and having to repeat yourself or have them mishear you.

I’m most interested by the combined value of the Auto-S units and the FAST Unloaders. If the units can actually determine what a specific store is short on stock and prioritise getting it unloaded and put out faster then that’s a real gamechanging benefit. On the flipside I do think there needs to be some thinking around when is too much too much – how many robots can you have moving about the store before they start getting in customers’ ways?

Mel Kleiman
BrainTrust

My bet is that automation wins and employees and customer service fails. Walmart will reap a lot of benefit from greater automation at the store level. Now for the “but.” Will it increase the quality of personal interaction? NO. Walmart still has not figured out how to really make the checkout lines move faster. They keep promising faster checkout and then the registers are not covered. My bet is more automation but no more customer interaction. Stockholders will win with reduced operating cost.

Ricardo Belmar
BrainTrust

Walmart is spot on to find meaningful ways to relieve their store associates of those “repeatable, predictable and manual” tasks so they can focus on customers. This, of course, doesn’t matter if they don’t follow through and deliver the appropriate training to associates so they can better serve customers. Training, as always, is critical here for associates to deliver the experience they want to deliver that will make customers enjoy shopping in their store. Kudos to Walmart to finding innovative ways, including robots, to leverage technology to make improvements to the overall associate experience.

Herb Sorensen
BrainTrust
It’s a very good start. How about robotizing displays? Not even Amazon has figured this out yet. However, Amazon GO is the personification of their patented “1-Click” checkout. (The patent has expired, but NOT the continuing super-sales practice of “close the sale immediately.”) This is rule #1 to real, personal, super salesmen: “Close early, and close often.” Close, close, close! That is the path to every sale, whether bricks or clicks. But a concept totally strange to the super-successful SELF-service retailers, (merchant warehousemen), who are passive in selling to shoppers, but very active in selling to suppliers. I give at least 10 years for any kind of recognition of this principle to break into bricks consciousness. It doesn’t even seem to have occurred to Amazon, in their own forays into bricks retailing. The SALE always occurs “Inside the Mind of the Shopper.” What happens at the checkout is simply confirmation of what happened at the shelf! I published the second edition of the book 10 years ago, and am even now working on the third… Read more »
John Karolefski
BrainTrust

I would give Walmart more credit if it invested in hiring more people instead of deploying machines, which certainly will result in letting people go no matter what the corporate spin may be. But humans have not solved the out-of-stocks problem, so maybe robots can. If not, get rid of them.

Kenneth Leung
BrainTrust

Makes sense for Walmart to experiment with robotics. Walmart made its reputation with technology investments in supply chain and now ecommerce, as labor cost increases and in some areas reduction in availability, and tech costs decreases, it makes sense to integrate technology (or at least pilot it) to see how to drive efficiencies in the store.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"Now Walmart should train its customer-facing associates in the art and science of human influence. Shoppers want and need human interaction."
"If Walmart used robots to only improve its in-stock inventory tracking it could be a gigantic win."
"Walmart’s associates already do a good job of being helpful to shoppers and the added time will only raise the service levels."

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