Walmart Chooses Human Workers Over Robots

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Retail giant Walmart has ended its effort to use roving robots to monitor shelves for inventory after it realized that human employees could do the job just as well.

According to a company representative, the Bentonville, Arkansas-based retailer cut ties with robotics company Bossa Nova Robotics Inc. after it found simpler solutions that were proven to be just as effective as relying on machines. As the COVID-19 pandemic pushed more orders online, Walmart began asking its employees to perform inventory while collecting goods for online orders. The company is also reportedly now considering having workers check product amounts and locations.

Additionally, the company’s US President and CEO John Furner was concerned with how shoppers would react to seeing a robot roaming the aisles of their local Walmart store.

Walmart, which has been investing heavily in new technologies in recent years, first began using the six-foot-tall Bossa Nova robots in 2017. At the time, Walmart praised the machines for their efficiency, saying they would help lower labor costs and boost sales by ensuring that products are always kept in stock. Representatives of the company also regularly made the robots a topic of conversation at media and investor events.

Walmart initially deployed the robots to 50 of its more than 4,700 stores. In April of 2019, the company announced that the number of stores with robots would be increased to 300. In January of 2020, Walmart said this number would increase even further to about 1,000 stores. 

By the time the contract ended, however, the robots were only being used in about 500 stores.

The end of the Walmart partnership has reportedly caused some problems at Bossa Nova. The San Francisco-based startup, which was founded in 2005 as a robotic toymaker, has laid off around half of its staff, according to a report by The Wall Street Journal.

Despite pulling the plug on its roving robots initiative, Walmart is still pushing ahead with its other experiments with technology. In October of 2020, Walmart subsidiary Sam’s Club announced that it will be deploying autonomous floor-scrubbing robots to all of its nearly 600 stores across the US. That same month, Walmart said it plans to turn four stores into e-commerce laboratories where it would test digital tools and various strategies to speed up the process of restocking shelves and fulfilling orders made online.