“Man Bites Dog” is a classic example of news that wouldn’t be news if it were the other way ’round, but “Humans Take Jobs from Robots” should count, too. So many of us are worried that robots might take our human jobs that we have to pay attention if things go in the opposite direction.
As they have.
Walmart has been using robots to check its stock for about five years. Bossa Nova robots took on the tedious task of scanning shelves for out of stock items, freeing human beings to do something more interesting.
During the pandemic, according to the Wall Street Journal, Walmart found that “humans can help get similar results.” They also discovered that — even during the pandemic — human beings were a little bit weirded out by six foot tall robots checking out the store.
So Walmart laid off the 500 robots and ended their relationship with Bossa Nova.
Out of stocks
Out of stocks are a big issue in retail. Research has found that consumers who don’t find a product on the shelf will choose another brand about a third of the time, but just as often they will go to another store to find their preferred brand.
They might ask for help from human workers, but they’re likely to get impatient with the process as the associate checks a computer to see whether an item is in stock and then goes physically to search for the product.
Out of stock items are a primary cause of lost sales.
Being able to rely on robots to identify out of stock items and get the stock refilled before customers complained — or left the store — was a benefit.
However, the shift to ecommerce and click-and-pickup during the pandemic meant that more human Walmart workers are out on the floor, gathering items to fulfill online orders. Turns out, they can check for out of stocks as they fill orders. Using humans for the task turns out to be more cost-effective.
It’s not the end of automation for Walmart. The company uses automated floor cleaners in its Sam’s Club stores and robotic transport systems in its warehouses.
The out of stock shelf scanning task goes back to the people, though.
Ironically, the retail behemoth’s decision led to 50% layoffs at Bossa Nova, industry indsiders say.