Walmart is expanding the use of shelf-scanning inventory management robots to more than 50 U.S. stores after testing in Arkansas, Pennsylvania and California, according to a Walmart blog post.
The robots, which have a vertical scanner tall enough to scan all the shelves in a given store aisle, move down each aisle scanning for out-of-stock items, incorrect prices and wrong or missing labels on products.
The aim is to have robots perform manual, repeatable tasks that otherwise would be performed by human store associates. Having the robots do it instead is expected to free up store associates to spend more time directly helping customers.
This is a significant expansion of Walmart's use of robotic technology in its stores, although for a retailer that has somewhere north of 4,500 stores nationwide (if you count supercenters, Sam's Clubs, discount centers and neighborhood markets), according to Statista, 50 stores isn't so many at all.
Many retailers are exploring the use of robots, not just in warehouse settings, but also in stores. Walmart has been among the most eager to explore this technology, along with Lowe's, which has been pretty public about testing its LoweBot. Robot technology providers like Softbank have also been pressing the case that in-store robots can be used to directly and indirectly enhance the customer experience.
Yet, there's also a lot of caution and careful consideration on the part of retailers, amidst the growing notion of robots threatening the jobs of human store associates. Walmart has gone out of the way to say that's not the case with its new shelf-scanning robots, saying that the purpose, rather, is to free store associates from mundane activities so that they can spend more time with customers.
The need to scan shelves for inventory, price and labeling, while mundane, is necessary to helping retailers maintain proper supply and reduce losses from pricing and labeling mistakes. Internet of Things technology has also been positioned to address some of these inventory issues, but this is another way of putting automated technology to work to solve inventory problems.
While retailers have been moving cautiously so far, Javier Minhondo, vice president of technology at software development company Globant, told Retail Dive that it might be time for retailers to embrace the technology. "Walmart's application of shelf-scanning robots is an ideal example of how AI can aid humans in their work environment and make experiences more efficient and relevant," he told Retail Dive in an email. "Walmart's robots can provide support that will allow humans to perform the task with higher added value, hence making their jobs much better, and more fulfilling."
Minhondo noted that there is no way a robot, at least given current technology, can replace what a human sales representative brings to an interaction with a customer. But, in this scenario, "the robot and the human are both able to execute on the functions that they perform best, improving customer experience and business efficiencies, while at the same time enhancing the experience of the human in the loop."