Author(s): Raghu Gopal
With more than 2 million employees, Walmart is an ocean liner of a company. But pressure from investors and rivals is pushing the big-box retailer to exploit the latest technical innovations in a bid to improve efficiencies. This includes the use of robots to keep track of inventory.
Last week, Walmart announced plans to deploy autonomous robots at more than 50 stores in the US. Robots are already commonly used to assist with logistics in warehouses, but now they're being moved directly onto the retail floor to support employees.
During the past year, Walmart has been testing shelf-scanning robots in stores in Arkansas, California and Pennsylvania. The company says it has been working to improve the customer experience by addressing complaints of out-of-stock items. Managing shelf inventory is a significant concern for retailers, as they can miss out on sales whenever customers cannot find products.
Walmart's autonomous shelf-scanning robots were developed in partnership with a company called Bossa Nova Robotics over a period of five years. The machines, which resemble two-foot-tall Hoovers with long necks, travel up and down store aisles using cameras to scan shelves for unavailable items and incorrect pricing and labels. If they find something out of place, they alert an employee. By ensuring that all items are in stock, the robots should help stores cut down on lost sales opportunities. They can also communicate with the store's central inventory system.
The move is part of a broader effort by Walmart to digitise its stores to make the shopping experience more holistic. Over the past few years, the retailer has helped speed up the checkout process by allowing customers to scan their own purchases. It has also brought digital innovation to its pharmacy and financial services. In e-commerce, Walmart has been trying new distribution methods including kerbside shopping collection, employees making home deliveries after work hours and even delivery drones. The company stresses that the machines will supplement human employees, not replace them. Robots will eliminate some of the drudgery of retail work, Walmart says.
There's at least a bit of technical theatre to this, and the move reflects tough retail competition in the US, particularly between Walmart and Amazon. Walmart has always been a master of logistics, but the pace of change is accelerating and it needs to show investors and customers that it can embrace new trends and emerging technologies quickly. For this round, Walmart gives a new meaning to shelf life.