Walmart is Ready to Up Its Robot Game
Prior to the start of Major League Baseball’s 2018-2019 offseason, Philadelphia Phillies managing partner and co-owner John Middleton was famously quoted saying that the team was prepared to spend “stupid money” in order to improve their 82-loss squad. And they did just that, committing nearly $500 million in new salaries to their payroll, including the signing of prized free agent Bryce Harper, which has resulted in the team getting off to a fast start and having World Series aspirations for the first time in nearly a decade. So, sure, they spent a stupid amount of money, but some might say it was worth it.
That sports analogy is exactly what comes to mind when I read about the efforts of big box giant Walmart and what they’re doing to transform themselves logistically in order to compete with the ecommerce behemoth that is Amazon.
In a blog posted to the company’s site this week, Walmart brand content manager Elizabeth Walker detailed how the retailer is using automated assistants—a fancy way of saying robots—to become a smarter, more efficient retail operation. Over the past year or so, the company has been testing in-store robots to help automate a number of tasks that would’ve been traditionally handled by human employees, including cleaning floors, scanning shelves for inventory, and in-store online order pickups. The goal, according to the retailer, is not to eliminate human jobs. Rather, they’re using the robots to take care of the more mundane tasks, freeing up human employees to take care of other tasks more efficiently. It’s a way of working smarter rather than harder.
Of course, though, Walmart will be able to realize a massive amount of savings from a payroll perspective. According to the Wall Street Journal, a single machine can cut roughly a few hours per day off the work previously done by humans, which means they can allocate fewer people to complete a task. The savings to the company really kicks in when you spread the strategy around to the company’s 4,600 U.S. stores, which, according to the blog post, is exactly what Walmart is ready to do.
According to Walker, the tests of these robots have been well received, and the retailer will be expanding their autonomous fleet to more stores across the country—enter the “stupid money” reference. The rundown of new autonomous robot “employees” includes:
- 1,500 new Auto-C floor cleaners. According to a company spokesman, this would free up at least two to three hours per day, per store of human employees manually driving floor scrubbing machines up and down the aisles.
- 300 new Auto-S shelf-scanning robots. This bot can scan items on shelves to check availability, correct location, and price accuracy, a laborious job for human employees. If anything, the biggest benefit here is the idea that Auto-S would be inherently more accurate and less error-prone than a human employee, saving Walmart money from the sales perspective.
- 1,200 FAST Unloaders. A product that works hand-in-hand with the shelf scanner, FAST Unloader automatically scans and sorts product unloaded from trucks based on priority and department. According to Walmart, the FAST Unloader would cut the number of employees needed to unload trucks in half, from eight to four.
- 900 new Pickup Towers. Basically a giant vending machine for online orders. A Walmart employee loads the purchased item into the pickup tower, which triggers a notification to the customer that their order is ready for pickup. This eliminates the need for an employee to step away from a task in order to hand the order over to the customer.
“Our associates immediately understood the opportunity for the new technology to free them up from focusing on tasks that are repeatable, predictable and manual,” John Crecelius, senior vice president of Central Operations for Walmart U.S., said in the blog post. “It allows them time to focus more on selling merchandise and serving customers, which they tell us have always been the most exciting parts of working in retail.”
Similar to the early success the Phillies are realizing in this first month of the new MLB season, it’ll be interesting to see how the expanded robot fleet impacts Walmart—both logistically and with the company’s bottom line.