Walmart has deployed an army of robots in its stores to monitor inventory, clean floors and unload trucks. The effort to increase efficiency comes at a time when the company’s chief competitor, Amazon, has used robots to revolutionize its fulfillment centers. The race is now on, as mega-retailers are finding the best ways to incorporate robots into their businesses. Sarah Nassauer and Chip Cutter write in The Wall Street Journal:
The country’s largest private employer said at least 300 stores this year will add machines that scan shelves for out-of-stock products. Autonomous floor scrubbers will be deployed in 1,500 stores to help speed up cleaning, after a test in hundreds of stores last year. And the number of conveyor belts that automatically scan and sort products as they come off trucks will more than double, to 1,200.
The company said the addition of a single machine can cut a few hours a day of work previously done by a human, or allow Walmart to allocate fewer people to complete a task, a large saving when spread around 4,600 U.S. stores. Executives said they are focused on giving workers more time to do other tasks, and on hiring in growing areas like e-commerce.
Instead, Walmart is spending to battle Amazon.com Inc. and serve more shoppers buying online. Walmart has hired around 40,000 store workers to pick groceries from shelves to fulfill online orders. The company is also raising wages, adding worker training, and buying e-commerce startups.
Store workers spend two to three hours a day driving a floor scrubber through a store using the manual machines, said a company spokesman last year. The automatic conveyor belts cut the number of workers needed to unload trucks by half, from around eight to four workers, said executives at a company presentation last June.
“With automation we are able to take away some of the tasks that associates don’t enjoy doing,” said Mark Propes, senior director of central operations for Walmart US. “At the same time we continue to open up new jobs in other things in the store.”
An additional 900 stores will also get 16-foot-high towers that let shoppers pick up online orders without interacting with a human.
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