Walmart, the retail chain owned by Walmart Stores Inc, recently made major staff cuts. We are not talking about real people in flesh and blood, with two arms, two legs and a pair of eyes. We are talking about intelligent machines.
The world’s largest supermarket chain, founded in 1962 by Sam Walton and having about 11,496 stores in 27 countries, decides to go back in time and restore value to human work. In 2017, Walmart started using robots in its stores. After closind a deal with the start-up Bossa Nova Robotics, they purchased 60cm high robots, equipped with 15 cameras each and capable of scanning barcodes to inventory and check store shelves. The machines’ job was to analyze the shelves in order to check if there were misplaced products, wrong prices or wrong labels.
The aim was to speed up work while maintaining a high level of efficiency, in an attempt to keep up with the competition with the big online retailers such as Amazon and Alibaba, which have been using robots in their warehouses for a while. After testing and approving other machines (such as the autonomous floor scrubber) in its stores, Walmart decided to try “inventory robots” in more than 500 stores. They were satisfied with the results obtained: each machine was able to scan products 3 times a day for a total number of 13,000 scans per day. So, at the beginning of the year, they announced the intention to increase the robotic workforce in 1000 stores.
The change of course came over the past few months, just when people stormed supermarkets into the collective hysteria sparked by the pandemic. With a strong increase in demand and the high number of online orders, the supermarket chain faced a new challenge: restocking shelves in record time while making sure that the inventory was always right. According to a report of the Wall Street Journal, Walmart realized that the most efficient way to restock store shelves was with the help of human employees, who equated and even surpassed the work done by robots.
Also, given the increased turnout, Walmart US CEO, John Furner, said he was worried about customers’ reactions to the robots. So Walmart decided to end the contract with the robotics company and give the job back to human employees.
For this time, we can say that the battle humans vs robots was won by the former, but winning the war is a whole different story. The supermarket chain itself has announced that they “will continue testing new technologies and investing in […] (their) own processes”, since they have “learned a lot about how technology can assist associates, make jobs easier and provide a better customer experience”.