Walmart shoppers can expect to see robots roaming the aisles in 2018. After a successful testing pilot, the retailer plans to introduce robots to 50 stores by the end of January 2018, with more to come. These robots, which do not resemble humans, consist of a large, two-foot high canister base with a tall extension arm outfitted with a scanner and a camera. They cruise aisles, scanning shelves for out-of-stock items, things put in the wrong place by customers, incorrect prices, and wrong or missing labels. They move continuously through the store, alerting human employees of errors.
Walmart says the robots are 50 percent more productive and three times faster than a human. Plus, claims Walmart Chief Technology Officer Jeremy King, human employees are bad at this task. “If you are running up and down the aisle, and you want to decide if we are out of Cheerios or not, a human doesn’t do that job very well and they don’t like it.”
But do they like it better than no job at all? Walmart claims the new robot workforce is designed to help, not replace, human employees. But this isn’t the first time Walmart has brought in automated “workers.” Last year, it introduced kiosks that customers can visit to pickup items ordered online. These huge stations — 16 feet tall and 8 feet wide — eject items on a conveyer belt after customers provide identification.
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Customers responded favorably, citing speed and convenience. Walmart is also testing technology that links facial recognition software with video cameras to identify customer dissatisfaction. When the system detects an unhappy customer, it will alert employees to report to a checkout register, in the hopes of improving the experience. The system will also provide Walmart with data about these customers’ buying habits.
But what about the personal touch, the human connection, the face-to-face customer service experience that brings people into the store rather than to a website?
Walmart has struggled to maintain a quality workforce, and the company’s employees (as well as customers) have been the regular subject of unflattering viral videos and commentary on social media. The company also ranks as the lowest-paying large company and is known for being a magnet for crime, including frequent shootings. Rather than investing in its employees and changing its store culture, however, Walmart is focusing on automation and its web operation, in an attempt to take on Amazon, the behemoth that has changed the way we shop.
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