News Feature | November 6, 2017

Walmart's New Shelf-Scanning Robots Exemplify How AI And Humans Can Work Together

Christine Kern

By Christine Kern, contributing writer

Shelf-Ready Packaging Gains Foothold On U.S. Retail Shelves

New technology will replenish inventory and make restock more efficient.

Walmart just announced they’re rolling out shelf-scanning robots to replenish inventory faster and save employees time when products run out. The robots are approximately 2-feet tall, and have a tower fitted with cameras that can scan aisles to check stock, identify missing or misplaced items, and find incorrect pricing or mislabeling. The data is then passed on to store employees, who restock shelves and correct pricing and labeling errors.

According to Javier Minhondo, VP of Technology, Artificial Intelligence Studio at Globant, this move is an ideal example of how AI and humans can work together. In an emailed statement, he explained: "Walmart's application of shelf-scanning robots is an ideal example of how AI can aid humans in their work environment and make experiences more efficient and relevant. AI isn't here to replace humans, it's here to aid humans, support and even teach us in creating better experiences and Walmart's robots can provide support that will allow humans to perform the task with higher added value, hence making their jobs much better, and more fulfilling. For instance, there is no way given the current state of the art, that a robot replaces the human interaction of a sales representative. The robot and the human are both able to execute on the functions that they perform best, improving customer experience and business efficiencies, while at the same time enhancing the experience of the human in the loop."

Out-of-stock items are a serious challenge for retailers, since they can mean big losses in sales when shoppers cannot find the desired products on store shelves. These shelf-scanning robots have been tested by Walmart in Arkansas, Pennsylvania and California with positive results. While the tech is being introduced nationwide, the company does not anticipate that it will replace workers or affect employee headcounts in stores; rather, the technology is designed to increase employee efficiency.

The majority of consumers say they shop in store for a sense of immediate gratification and the ability to confirm quality. Conversely, a majority of consumers say they shop online for convenience. Walmart’s approach supports this consumer demand. If consumers can’t find the item they want where they’re expecting to find it, it can completely ruin the customer’s shopping experience, which is the leading reason consumers give for shopping in-store versus online.

Brennan Wilkie, the SVP of Customer Experience Strategy at InMoment, a customer experience intelligence company, told CX influencer Shep Hyken that, “Once viewed as a customer experience laggard, Walmart has turned to innovative tech to stay relevant, even leapfrogging some of the big e-tailers with a bold vision.”

And Dan Nieweem, Co-founder and Principal at Avionos, says that the move also demonstrates the lengths to which retailers must go to better challenge their peers. In an emailed statement, he stated: "Walmart's inventory robot strategy represents how competitive the commerce landscape has become. In order to be successful, brands and retailers need to consistently be able to stay up-to-date with inventory, monitoring stock, improving fill rates and fulfilling orders as quickly as possible. Walmart's robot also represents the iterative mindset that successful retailers will need to adopt in this shifting landscape. As technology becomes more integrated into the retail sector brands and retailers have new opportunities to move at the faster pace consumer's demand, while refocusing their energy on building on new and different experiences."