Walmart's Robots Slowly Revolutionizing the Retail Sector
Tue, April 20, 2021

Walmart's Robots Slowly Revolutionizing the Retail Sector

Walmart, the largest US retailer and employer, has affirmed its status as a grocery powerhouse / Photo by: Sven via Wikimedia Commons

 

Robots have begun to take over public spaces such as streets and stores, and people who have interacted with them have no idea what to do, wrote Katharine Schwab of Fast Company, a monthly American business magazine. But did you know that Walmart is deploying robots in their aisles as well? 

Walmart, the largest US retailer and employer, has affirmed its status as a grocery powerhouse, said IAM Newswire via Market Realist, a news and research platform for experts and non-professionals. 

However, has Walmart’s ventures on automation and robotics paid off? It appears that the firm has brought exponential sales gains. And the company’s success is owed to its successful delivery infrastructure. That doesn’t, though, that it should rest on its laurels, so to speak, as the competition is everywhere and is here to stay in the grocery sector. 

 

Walmart’s Earnings

Walmart raised its earnings guidance for 2019, with a slight decline in operating income of 5.4% at $4.72 billion, a significant drop from $4.99 billion in the same period in 2018. Despite that, the firm’s total revenue rose from $124.89 billion last year to $127.99 billion in 2019 at 2.5%. E-sales grew 41% due to a strong grocery segment. Grocery sales amount for as much as 56% of the company’s total revenue, making it America’s largest grocery store. Shares surged 1% “with an overall 30% increase throughout the year,” the company further revealed.

The Road to Robot Deployment 

Walmart has been automating its warehouses with robots for years. The robots can pack and sort items as they move along the conveyor belt. Further, the company has rolled out robots that roam around store aisles. The robots were launched in 50 stores in 2017 and Walmart is slated to launch 350 more units in 2019. These are designed to scan shelves, searching for items that are out of stock, thereby eliminating a time-consuming task that human workers no longer have to do. However, humans are still required to refill the shelves after the bots take note of a missing product. 

Interestingly, Walmart has also turned into a test laboratory for robot-human interaction. Sarjoun Skaff, CTO and co-founder at Bossa Nova, said, “What we think is very valuable to us is we have a life-sized laboratory where hopefully millions of people will be seeing our robot.” For Skaff, it’s a valuable space for researchers to experiment with robot-human interaction concepts, allowing people “to get to the truth faster.” 

Bossa Nova, the company behind the retailer’s shelf scanners, ensured that the robots would always yield to people, didn’t get in their way, and could articulate where they were going so as not to confuse shoppers. Some designers even placed eyes on the robots to indicate a direction as humans are used to observing people’s eyes to help them understand which way they want to go. But Skaff didn’t want the robot to be designed in an anthropomorphic manner, as he sees them more as a tool.

To enable the robots to effectively communicate with humans, Skaff resorted to using a car turn’s signal as a convention, enabling everyone to understand the robot. In the robot’s development stages, Bossa Nova installed makeshift turn signals to the body and tested it using a remote control. Skaff said that his team expected the turn signals to work. In fact, everyone was surprised that the signals did not work. He added, “People had a hard time transcribing an experience from the road to one that’s indoors.”

Hence, Bossa Nova used a rotating ring of light to indicate direction. So far, Bossa Nova is still testing out the ring, signifying another experiment for Walmart’s growing robot test lab. Other than that, Walmart is set to deploy self-driving robots that clean floors to 1,860 of its more than 4,700 stores by February. The company will also place shelf-inventory-scanning robots at 350 stores. Another set of bots will be tasked to scan boxes upon delivery and segregate them onto conveyor belts at 1,700 stores. 

Walmart operates a complex network, so this type of development is expected. The company’s strategic move helps it minimize costs while improving workforce productivity with 1 million employees working hourly in its stores. Without having to do repetitive and predictive tasks, store employees can devote more time to their service roles. 

Competition, New Markets, and the Automation Debate 

Both Walmart and Target are testing robots and automation at their warehouses. The latter has 1,850 stores in the US and 360,000 workers but is deviating from a robot-human strategy. In recent years, Walmart has acquired a number of digitally native fashion brands, shifting its attention to non-food items and attracting customers, albeit slowly. 

Automation is a subject for debate as people who work in lower-skilled jobs are more at risk of being replaced by technology. For Walmart, automation entails changing the norm of retail. Even so, the firm still needs to improve its non-food offerings to bolster its operating numbers and drive higher-margin merchandise via e-commerce. 

Walmart’s approach to revolutionizing retail involves automation and robotics. Robots will perform repetitive tasks while human workers will focus more on delivering services to customers. While it sounds innovative on paper, Walmart has to ensure that customers are comfortable in engaging with robots in its aisles.

In recent years, Walmart has acquired a number of digitally native fashion brands, shifting its attention to non-food items and attracting customers, albeit slowly / Photo by: Mike Mozart via Flickr