After successful pilots, Walmart plans to roll out more “automated assistants” to handle a range of repetitive tasks at stores.
The company said in a blog post Tuesday that the robots and automated units, currently in just a few locations, perform such functions as checking inventory, store maintenance, sorting products and fulfilling online orders, enabling store associates to spend more time serving customers on the sales floor.
Coming to stores “soon,” Walmart said, will be 1,500 more autonomous floor cleaners (known as Auto-C, pictured above), 300 new shelf scanners (Auto-S, left), 1,200 additional FAST Unloaders and 900 more Pickup Towers (pictured below).
Walmart said it has been testing the technology for months and seen a strong response from store staff.
“Our associates immediately understood the opportunity for the new technology to free them up from focusing on tasks that are repeatable, predictable and manual,” John Crecelius, senior vice president of central operations for Walmart U.S., commented in the blog. “It allows them time to focus more on selling merchandise and serving customers, which they tell us have always been the most exciting parts of working in retail.”
Walmart began testing the Auto-S shelf scanning robots at a small number of stores in Arkansas, Pennsylvania and California in 2017. Roaming the aisles, Auto-S scans items on to update product availability, flag out-of-stocks, check pricing, ensure proper shelf location, and identify wrong or missing labels.
On the back end, the FAST Unloader works in tandem with the Auto-S by automatically scanning and sorting items unloaded from trucks based on priority and department. That enables store associates to move product from the back room out onto the sales floor more quickly, Walmart noted.
“What’s especially cool is that two pieces of tech, the shelf scanners and the FAST Unloaders, share data back and forth to improve the whole process of getting products on the shelves,” Elizabeth Walker, manager of brand content at Walmart, said in the blog. “What does this mean for the customer? It means a store that can function seamlessly and associates who are there when customers need them. It also means the items are on shelves where the customers expect in smarter stores all over the country.”
Meanwhile, the Auto-C robot saves store employees the two hours it would take to sit on a scrubbing machine to clean and polish the floors, according to Walmart. An associate just needs to prepare the area to be cleaned and program the self-driving machine’s route throughout the open parts of the store.
The latest rollout will significantly expand Auto-C’s store coverage. In October, Walmart had said the robot was being used in 78 stores and would be introduced to another 360 locations.
Part of Walmart’s e-commerce fulfillment scheme, the Pickup Towers provide a self-service option for retrieving online orders. After a shopper places an order online and designates a location for pickup, a store associate loads the item into the Pickup Tower. The customer then receives an email notification that the order is ready for pickup, and they can use the tower “like a giant vending machine” to collect their purchase, according to Walker. Walmart launched the Pickup Towers in 2017 and was slated to have them in more than 700 stores by the end of 2018.
“Smart assistants have huge potential to make busy stores run more smoothly,” Walker said in the blog.