Wal-Mart Stores Inc. said last week it's rolling out shelf-scanning robots in more than 50 U.S. stores next year, to replenish inventory faster and save employees’ time when products run out. While Wal-Mart has been testing shelf-scanning robots in stores in Arkansas, Pennsylvania and California for the past three years, by the end of January, the robots will arrive in places like El Paso, Texas; Jacksonville, Fla.; and Fort Worth, Texas. The two-foot tall robots are fitted with cameras to scan aisles and check stock, identifying missing, misplaced, mislabeled and mispriced items. The robots will give that information to employees who will fix the issues. The company said the robots, which are 50 percent more productive than their human counterparts and can scan shelves significantly more accurately and three times faster, would not replace workers or affect employee headcount in stores.
Total Retail’s Take: Wal-Mart’s decision to add robots seems to have been made with its top competitor in mind. With Amazon.com cutting into foot traffic at brick-and-mortar stores, retailers need to do everything they can to make the customer’s in-store experience as convenient as possible. The robots, which are designed to help find missing stock, can help here. After all, out-of-stock items are a major inconvenience for in-store shoppers, and revenue loss for retailers. Robots also align with Wal-Mart's broader effort to digitize its stores. In the past year, for example, Wal-Mart has installed giant “pickup towers” that operate like self-service kiosks where customers can pick up their online orders. It has also speeded up the checkout process by allowing customers to scan their own purchases, and has digitized operations like pharmacy and financial services in stores. Wal-Mart has also been testing drones for home delivery, curbside pickup and checking warehouse inventories.