Walmart is using shelf-scanning robots to audit its stores

Robots are already a common sight in warehouses (Amazon alone use more than 45,000) but now they’re moving into stores too. Walmart has announced it’s deploying shelf-scanning bots in 50 locations around the US, using the machines to check things like inventory, prices, and misplaced items. The retailing giant says the robots’ introduction won’t lead to job losses, and that the company wants to save employees from carrying out tasks that are “repeatable, predictable, and manual.”

The robots themselves are produced by California-based Bossa Nova Robotics, and are about two-feet tall with an extendable tower containing lights and sensors for scanning shelves. They sit in recharging stations in the store until a human employee gives them a “mission” — e.g. checking a particular aisle to see what needs re-stocking. The robots are supposed to save workers’ time, but Walmart says it will also use the data they collect to improve efficiency nationwide.

"If you think about trying to go through a facility with all these different [items] and figure out if your prices are accurate, it can be very time-consuming,” John Crecelius, Walmart’s vice president of central operations, told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “From our perspective, when you're doing things like this you're trying to improve your service to your customers and trying to make things simpler and easier for your associates at the same time.”

Demonstrating the robots’ usefulness is simple enough, but Walmart’s claim that their deployment won’t lead to job losses is harder to prove. Just because you don’t fire a human the moment you buy a robot, doesn’t mean you won’t hire fewer humans further down the line. And although economists and other forecasters disagree about whether the current wave of automation is going to lead to widespread job losses, at least some studies show that when you get more (industrial) robots in any geographic area, you get fewer jobs and lower wages. Whether or not the same holds true of shelf-scanning bots will no doubt be the subject of future studies.

Comments

Good! As a Walmart shopper my biggest complaint would be their inventory control. Items I buy regularly, grocery staples as basic as coffee, are often out of stock. It has to be an IC issue because their employees work 24/7 re-stocking the store.

The funny thing being that originally IC was the thing that Walmart did better than anyone and was a secret to their success. I’m not sure why they allowed themselves to fall behind there.

Because they are cutting corners to reduce overhead, such as understaffing stores. Just like before self checkout, they only had one or two lanes open. Which meant the lines were full of irate customers. Now those one or two lanes just supplement the big self checkout sections of the store so it’s not an issue anymore. Same way these robots will eventually solve their IC issue. Now they can fix it without paying more people to do it.

I simply hope this helps the online in store availability be more accurate. If it says its in stock and i show up to buy it and its not there, so annoyed.

It mentioned changing prices on stickers. There’s a grocery store by me which is a smaller chain. 10 years or so ago they had electronic price tags. Why is this the only place I’ve seen this? You’d think the costs would outweigh the constant need to change prices.

They really need to improve the electronic price signs for shelves. I’ve been to a couple of stores that have these, and they’re need to see, but hard to read. They tend to be be horrid 6×20 arrays of red LED lights to make the numbers. And they’re all the same. There’s no way to take a quick glance at the tag colour to see if something is on sale, or a permanent mark-down, or a multi-buy, etc. And there was no indication for how long that price would last/when it was last changed.

Would be nice if they moved to a proper LCD/OLED screen with colour support. That way they could use different background colours for different things (regular price, sale price, multi-buy, etc). With multiple lines for showing start/end dates, last updated, etc.

If you’re going to replace a paper price tag on the shelf, you need to support all the features that paper price tag supported!

I was suddenly struck when the video showed the worker manually swapping a paper price sticker. In Norway, all big grocery stores use e-ink displays for showing prices, I think they all made the switch about 7 years ago.

They have great resolution and are easy to read. Shock sales are usually advertised on paper attention grabbers around the store. Multi-buy sales are a seldom occurrence here, but they are advertised on those attention grabbers when they occur.

Before these were introduced, I often encountered that the advertised price at the shelf was not the same as the registered price at the register. That problem is now long gone.

Here are some images (contrast feels better in real life)

Those are much better than the ones I’ve seen in the two stores around here that have them. The ones here are pretty much like digital clock readouts, just the dollars and cents of the price, nothing else.

This gives me hope for the future. Thanks!

In another life I worked at Target, and we’d do these inventory and audit functions at night after the store closed. They were performed quarterly and we were usually approved overtime to do it (so time and a half). We didn’t hire additional employees to do the work, we used some night crew and some morning crew and they just worked a longer shift to do the counts. I doubt something like this would lead to job loss, but it would lead to wage loss. If you were a typical floor employee, you might make an extra $300-$400 a year volunteering for a function like this, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but when you only make $9/hr. that’s a 1.5-2% raise.

It won’t lead to job loss now, but I imagine it could eventually as they continue to automate the stores.

There are times when I understand the concern about robots taking everyone’s jobs, like self driving cars replacing taxi and truck drivers.

Then there are other times like this when I think it’s a bit overblown. Yes, I think this robot will either replace or reduce jobs in Wal-Mart retail stores, but technology has been doing this for hundreds of years. It also creates jobs – like app developers and warehouse runners.

I’m not panicked just yet.

You can’t compare the future to the last 200 years. With recent advances and investment in AI, automation capabilities are increasing at unprecedented rates. For now, we see the simple task-based jobs beginning to go away, but with enough time, we will see jobs that require more advanced human intelligence go away as well.

Once AI is commoditized, it will be cheaper and carry no human overhead like emotions, health, motivation, etc. You won’t need a person to run a warehouse or write code, because AI will do it better, cheaper, and faster. Our only hope is that our imaginations and creativity prevail, but who’s to say those aspects of humanity cannot also be artificialized?

Then what? What happens when all humans are put out of a job?

This is an inevitable outcome of evolution. A species strives for more resources with less energy. Creating machines that remove the need for effort is the ultimate outcome.

But we do need to be prepared for this. The expectation is that job loss will hit us faster than we expect it to. And right now, we’re doing nothing substantial to prepare for this. I wonder what happens when all of the Taxi, uber, truck drivers, cashiers, warehouse workers and factory workers get replaced. I know people say "then they can get one of the new jobs that’ll be created!" but we can’t just teach everyone to be an engineer or coder. Got to get the ball rolling on UBI sooner or later.

Yeah, I was trying to explain this to my 60yo father in law. Driverless cars is just one example of automation and that alone is going to be devastating from a jobs perspective. He told me he hasn’t seen any driverless cars yet and it’s going to be a long time before we have to worry about that. Oh boy. This is the most imminent threat to our society and he’s worried about North Korea.

The issue is, once you start seeing them, they’re going to take off at an alarming pace. And there won’t be any turning back.

Out of the blue today, I came across this piece regarding UBI and post capitalism. It’s a good read.

https://futurism.com/its-time-to-shift-our-society-to-robotic-labor-and-a-basic-income/

Walmart is a very depressing place..

The world is a very depressing place.

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