Walmart is eliminating 150 positions at its optical lab in Fayetteville, Arkansas and another 108 in Crawfordsville, Indiana, according to confirmation from the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce to Arkansas Online and documents issued to the Indiana Department of Workforce Development.
A Walmart spokesperson confirmed the news to Retail Dive in an email and attributed the job cuts to "changing business needs," adding that the company is working to help affecting employees find jobs at nearby Walmart or Sam's Club stores. Roughly 450 workers will still be employed at the optical lab, according to Arkansas Online.
Two years ago the retail giant installed advanced optical-making equipment at its third optical lab, in Dallas, Texas, and eliminated 91 jobs in the process, according to the Dallas Morning News.
Much of the retail industry's focus is on the ways in which technologies can help better serve customers and make stores and operations more efficient. But most advanced economies are unprepared for the level of worker displacement and wage depression by robots and other types of automation, economists say.
The retail industry in many ways is at the forefront of that shift. Fashion retailer Zara has begun using robots to automate buy online, pickup in store purchases, and retailers like Hudson's Bay, Amazon and Boxed are installing equipment for last-mile fulfillment at warehouses. Self-checkout using various technologies is replacing many clerks at big box stores.
"1.8 billion jobs — or two-thirds of the current labor force of developing countries — are estimated to be susceptible to automation from today's technological standpoint," social scientist Lukas Schlogl and economist Andy Sumner wrote in a paper published this month by the Center for Global Development. "Cumulative advances in industrial automation and labor-saving technologies could further exacerbate this trend."
In retail, between 6 million and 7.5 million retail jobs could be eliminated by automation in the coming years, according to a study conducted by Cornerstone Capital Group for the Investor Responsibility Research Center Institute last year. And Forrester researchers have said that the continued development of artificial intelligence and related technologies will result in the elimination of 6% of all jobs in the U.S. by 2021.
The labor adjustments at Walmart's optical manufacturing posts is a stark example of that in action. But not everyone is worried. Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos doesn't fear a future where robots put humans out of work, saying such views are "unimaginative" and that such tech can improve workers' lives and drive wealth. And author Joe Atikian had a similarly positive take in a May op-ed, noting that automation in banking and grocery store checkout lines has yet to wipe out jobs in those sectors. The key is in retaining workers for different jobs, much like Boxed has done in its New Jersey fulfillment center.