Walmart turns over some retail jobs to robots

When the robot revolution eventually arrives they’ll have plenty of soldiers ready to get to work. That number is now going up considerably thanks to Walmart. According to a recent announcement, the jobs of keeping the floors clean and stocking shelves will soon be done by non-human workers in a large number of their stores. And why not? None of the robots belong to a union… yet. (CNN)

Walmart wants store workers to help out customers instead of mopping up floors and unloading boxes in backrooms. So it’s increasingly turning to robots to fill those tasks.

The world’s largest retailer announced Tuesday that it is adding thousands of new robots to its stores. By next February, it expects to have autonomous floor scrubbers in 1,860 of its more than 4,700 US stores. Walmart will also have robots that scan shelf inventory at 350 stores. And there will be bots at 1,700 stores that automatically scan boxes as they come off delivery trucks and sort them by department onto conveyer belts.

Walmart says these “smart assistants” will reduce the amount of time workers spend on “repeatable, predictable and manual” tasks in stores and allow them to switch to selling merchandise to shoppers and other customer service roles.

Walmart is saying that they’re not looking to replace human workers with robots, instead preferring they spend their time directly helping customers. That’s fair enough, I suppose, but you only need so many clerks and greeters telling shoppers which aisle to go to. Also, some of their other comments about the rationale behind this lead you to believe that the overall number of human workers will be going down.

They’ve been discussing the fact that unemployment is near record lows and there is a shortage of labor in retail. This has led most retailers – including Walmart – to raise wages and offer better benefits in order to attract workers. But it’s still a tight labor market so increasing automation makes sense. Now ask yourself the following: once unemployment goes back up, what incentive do retailers like Walmart have to go back and hire a larger number of people after they’ve already invested in robots to do these jobs?

The truth is, the best robots can outpace any human worker when it comes to janitorial services and warehouse labor. Go back and look at that Boston Dynamics monstrosity I wrote about a few weeks ago. That thing is a beast. It can scan the labels on boxes and pallets and know right where they are supposed to go. It moves them quickly and efficiently, navigating the store by being able to “see” any obstacles in its way. And it works any hour of the day or night, never takes vacations and you don’t have to pay it or provide any benefits aside from maintenance and repairs.

Walmart doesn’t have the Boston Dynamics model yet, but as it becomes more affordable they will. Why wouldn’t they? Of course, when Artificial Intelligence wakes up and takes over, try to make sure you’re not shopping at a Supercenter. Here’s the video of the warehouse robot again just as a reminder of what’s in store.