Slow Your Roll Robots: Not Everyone Is Excited About Walmart's Robots


Slow Your Roll Robots: Not Everyone Is Excited About Walmart's Robots

Blake Morgan, Senior Contributor 

It feels like stepping into a sci-fi movie: walking through a store to see robots stocking the shelves, scanning inventory and chatting with humans. Robots are already starting to change how customers and employees interact with products. Retailers are using robots in the supply chain, in stores and in customer interactions. Walmart is the latest, and the largest, retailer to adopt robots with an army of 1,500 robots at its stores, but not everyone is excited about the new development.

Walmart is adding 1,500 robots to hundreds of stores across the country to help with tasks like cleaning and stocking shelves.

Other retailers are experimenting with in-store robots, but not on the same scale as Walmart.

Executives claim robots help streamline processes and lower costs.
Many Walmart employees are less than enthusiastic about the change and don’t enjoy working with robots.

Walmart and other companies struggle with finding the balance between humans and robots.

Retail Robots

Walmart isn’t the only store to use robots, but it is the largest. Other stores use robots to move items around the store, perform routine maintenance and interact with customers. Lowes has been using LowesBot robots for years that wander the store and help customers find items. Giant Food Stores are getting upgraded with a robot named Marty that roams the store and alerts employees about issues like spills or hazards. Domino’s is even testing a robot for automatic pizza deliveries in urban areas. Customers and employees are getting used to robots on a smaller scale, but Walmart is ready to take it to the next level.

Walmart’s Robot Army

Walmart is the nation’s largest private employer with more than 1 million employees and annual revenue of more than $500 billion. In many areas, it sets the stage for other, smaller retailers to follow. Its newest investment in an army of more than 1,500 robots to use across 350 stores is a risky bet that Walmart is hoping will pay off.

The robots will scan shelves, unload boxes, clean floors and help customers pick up online orders. They’ve already been tested in a handful of Walmart stores to mixed reviews. Executives say the robots will cut costs and improve store efficiency while removing mundane tasks and allowing employees to focus on the more satisfying and enjoyable parts of their jobs. To executives, the robots are a way the company can cut waste and operate with more discipline. The goal is to build a smoother experience for customers and employees by creating cleaner, more organized stores that operate seamlessly.

However, many employees don’t see it that way. The robots are replacing jobs typically done by human employees, and many people aren’t happy about it. Humans see their co-workers losing their jobs. Some Walmart stores have already replaced their human janitors with robot cleaners. Other workers report that they’ve never felt more robotic. As the store doubles down on efficiency, many employees feel they’re being pushed to work like robots themselves or spend most of their time wrangling robots that are still learning. Retail robots can have glitches and often have to be reprogrammed or retrained if something changes in the inventory or store layout.

Robot Customer Interactions

There are movies, books and articles about the future of robots, but most Americans have still yet to meet one in person. Walmart is likely the first interaction many consumers will have with a robot, which means Walmart will set the tone for customers’ perceptions of robots in stores.

Getting used to robots patrolling the aisles and scanning shelves has been difficult for some customers who don’t know how to interact with the robots or are creeped out by a large robot looming over the shelves as it scans items. Some customers have been touching the robots, pushing buttons and even kicking them. In many cases, the novelty and uncertainty of retail robots overshadows the benefits it could create for customers of faster service and cleaner stores.

Human-Machine Balance

One of the biggest challenges of the changing retail environment is finding the balance between humans and machines. There’s no doubt that robots and automation create more efficient retail operations, but at what cost? Employees still need to feel valued, and customers need to feel comfortable throughout their shopping experience. So far, many Walmart employees have called the transition clumsy and awkward as robots and humans learn to work together.

However, that isn’t causing Walmart to slow down. The retail giant has plans to expand its robot army and continue driving hyper-efficiency. Retail robots definitely won’t be going away, but learning how to work together with humans should be their next programmed task. It could be wise for Walmart to slow its robot rollout to focus on developing a good transition before putting robots in every store.

Blake Morgan is a keynote speaker, customer experience futurist and the author of two books including her new "The Customer Of The Future." Stay in touch with her weekly on her newsletter.