- Walmart is currently testing shelf-scanning robots in 50 stores, according to numerous sources. The machines will check inventory levels and pricing, and look for misplaced items.
- The robots are meant to aid human workers rather than replace them, according to Walmart. Grabbing products and stocking them, one official told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is difficult for machines.
- Checking shelves is tedious work that’s prone to human error, according to Walmart. Engadget noted the company is playing down the disruption machines may have to its human workforce, but wrote the retailer likes to cut costs wherever possible and will likely expand its use of automated processes.
Walmart is very sensitive to any machines-replacing-human-workers implications its new shelf-scanning robots bring up. In a short video promoting the new technology, Walmart positions the machines as complementary to its store associates. The robots do the rote work, according to the company, while the human employees handle the finer art of customer service.
“We’re using technology to focus on tasks that are repeatable, predictable and manual, freeing up associates to spend more time doing what they do best: serving you,” the narrator notes in the video.
It’s no wonder Walmart is softening the launch of its new aisle-roaming robots. These are one of the few customer-facing examples of automated technology that’s doing work formerly performed by the retailer’s employees. Despite the fact that retailers are, in fact, relying more and more on automated processes — mostly in their back rooms, distribution centers and at various points throughout the supply chain — grocers want to convey to consumers that the human element remains very important to them.
In an intensely competitive industry where efficiency is of the utmost importance, automation will continue to expand. It is being tested in everything from order delivery to product sorting. A New Jersey technology company recently piloted a robot companion shopper that leads customers around stores, picking the quickest route based on the products they need.
While robots have become very useful at doing rote, repeatable tasks prone to human error, their ability to do tasks like stock shelves and interact with customers remains limited. Even the ability to automatically scan customers’ products and charge them without the use of a cashier remains limited, as the much-delayed launch of Amazon Go has shown.
In the meantime, retailers will continue to implement automated technology where they can, and put a friendly face on their efforts for customers — literally, in some cases. Marty, a new shelf-scanning robot being tested at a Giant store in Pennsylvania, features a pair of googly eyes and has drawn amused reactions from store customers. But these aren't the only robots roaming grocery aisles. This summer, Shnucks started testing shelf-scanning robot Tally in three Missouri stores.