There’s an old saying that asks, “Why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free?” But lately, in the case of Walmart, it’s more a case of “Why buy the robot if you can get some guy to do it for less?”
This in a week that has seen news reports that the world’s largest retailer has terminated its contract — and a 3-year-old automated shelf-stocking experiment — with San Francisco’s Bossa Nova Robotics, having found that existing “human” employees were able to do the same work just as well.
To say Walmart’s robotic reversal is significant would be an understatement, given its sheer size and clout, as well as the fact that as recently as January the company had planned to triple its robotic fleet and release the autonomous units in 1,000 of its 4,700 stores.
The COVID Effect
Part of the problem has to do with how we shop, as research shows COVID-19 has caused a spike in the number of people who buy groceries online for delivery or pickup. In fact, PYMNTS research shows 24 percent of consumers say they have shifted to performing at least one daily activity online and plan to keep it that way.
To meet that need, retailers and grocers, including Walmart, have had to put more people on the floors to pick items for orders and also restock shelves that are not only getting depleted more quickly than usual but are also pockmarked with gaps due to unprecedented product shortages.
In Walmart’s experience, the Wall Street Journal reports, the company discovered that the existing employees it had already walking the aisles could spot inventory problems and monitor product amounts and misplacements as good, if not better than the bots.
Re-Think Vs Reject
A Walmart spokesperson characterized the robotic shelf-stocking experiment as a good learning experience about how technology can interact with and help its employees do their jobs better and easier.
As much as the Bossa Nova contract has ended, Walmart said it still planned to test — and invest in — new technologies to “help move products to our shelves as quickly as we can,” without offering specifics. Although the re-stocking robots have been canned, the company said it was still using robots in stores to clean floors.
Bossa Nova Chief Technology Officer Sarjoun Skaff said the company could not comment on the Walmart contract, but touted the company’s focus on its core technologies, as well as the “stunning advances in [artificial intelligence] AI and robotics” it has made.
“Our hardware, autonomy and operations excelled in more than 500 of the world's most challenging stores,” Skaff said via email to PYMNTS, saying Bossa Nova planned to continue deploying this technology with its partners in retail and other fields.
Not Just Walmart
It remains to be seen how other retailers react to their robotics programs, as dozens have invested and deployed their own in-store fleets to mixed reviews from the public.
A profile of the $35,000 “Marty” units gliding down the aisles of Stop n Shop stores featured complaints from customers who found them intrusive and weird, as well as from employees who had to respond to whatever issue they discovered.
“Essentially, once ‘Marty’ identifies a hazard using its sensors, it stops in its tracks, changes its signature operating lights from blue to yellow, and repeatedly announces ‘caution, hazard detected’ in English and Spanish,” Mashable reported, saying the robots didn’t actually clean anything.
“Marty is advertised as an aisle-sweeping superhero, but it's simply a messenger that shouts about a problem until a more capable human comes and removes whatever the hazard may be,” the article said.
As much as automation and technology are consistently being used to reduce costs, Walmart’s robot reversal is likely to go down as a proverbial bump in the road of a much broader technological trend. A trend that will undoubtedly continue to march down a path of experimental progress that is sure to be filled with trial and error.