For many industrialists, the pandemic was like falling asleep in 2020 and waking up in 2030 — except it was actually still 2020. The pandemic pushed automation ahead ten years beyond where it had been expected to end up in the second decade of the 21st century, forcing manufacturers, brands, and consumers alike to accept new levels of automation.
Walmart, one of the movers and shakers for automation, surprised observers by laying off robots that had been checking shelf stock for five years. During the pandemic, they discovered that people could actually do the job just as well.
The latest robots to lose their Walmart jobs are 17 foot tall grocery dispensers. People can step into the store and pick up their online orders. They scan a barcode and a window opens in the robotic tower, revealing a conveyor belt that brings their groceries to them. Customers can pack up their goods and take them home. These machines were in place in 1500 Walmart stores for several years.
However, just as the pandemic made shoppers happy to accept online grocery shopping and delivery, it also made Walmart shoppers happy to accept curbside pickup and delivery. Having to go inside and interact with the pickup towers was less appealing.
From the point of view of retailers, consumers’ love of delivery is not an unmixed blessing. Customers can come to a physical store to shop. They can shop online and come into the store for pick up when items are shipped from a warehouse. They can shop entirely online for shipment from a warehouse to their home. Compared with these options, buying online and having goods delivered from a local store is the most expensive option for the store.
For the customers, though, hanging out at home in their pjs waiting for same-day delivery is the most convenient.
When it meant reducing the number of customers they had to try to force into pandemic protocols, keeping their workers safe from COVID-19, and spending less time disinfecting their shops, it was worth it to indulge the desire for delivery. Keeping the doors open through the pandemic was the goal, after all. It wasn’t supposed to be a permanent change.
Once consumers got used to it, though, it’s hard to dial it back. It will be a while before Walmart can say, “Come on back and shop with us.” When they can, it might not be enough to say, “Remember how fun it was before you got used to delivery?”
Walmart plans to revisit their automation, figuring out how to repurpose current systems and machinery to make curbside pickup more profitable. There’s no evidence that they are backing off of automation.
That might be something that just won’t go back in the box.
Walmart might be able to get a little credit for holding off the robot hordes taking human jobs, though.