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story.lead_photo.caption A robot prowls the aisles of a Wal-Mart store in a test run of the autonomous device’s “mission” to check shelves and alert workers to stocking or pricing needs.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. customers in a few Arkansas stores will soon cross paths with robots roaming the aisles.

The Bentonville company said it will begin using autonomous devices in about 50 stores next month that are programmed to scan store shelves and identify things like out-of-stock items or products incorrectly priced or placed in the wrong spaces. Wal-Mart stores in Searcy, Sherwood and Pine Bluff will be among the first to introduce the robots beginning in early November, according to the company. A Wal-Mart store in Rogers will have a robot early next year.

The 50-store trial is an extension of a test first conducted in Pennsylvania as the retailer explores ways to use technology to improve its operations. John Crecelius, Wal-Mart U.S. vice president of central operations, said the expansion will give the company a chance to collect and analyze additional data as the robots take on tasks typically done by employees.

"If you think about trying to go through a facility with all these different [items] and figure out if your prices are accurate, it can be very time-consuming," Crecelius said. "Then to try to figure out what to do about it. Imagine how much time you've lost in doing all that."

This photo released by Wal-Mart shows a new robot that will be used in some of the retailer's stores.

The robots being tested as a possible solution were produced by California-based Bossa Nova Robotics. Martin Hitch, the company's chief business officer, said Bossa Nova has been developing the technology for five years and began a partnership with Wal-Mart about three years ago.

A robot will be kept at a recharging station in a selected store and will move into action when it receives a "mission" like scanning aisles to locate inaccurately priced items. The information collected will be relayed to employees, who then will determine how to prioritize and correct any problems that it finds. Hitch said the information will give department managers and other employees "visibility across the entire department before they start the day."

"It's still really all about the A to Z process of capturing data, analyzing data, creating actions and then taking actions," Hitch said. "Within that, we're good at doing a part of it, and we're terrible at doing a part of it. When it comes to picking the product up, the robot has no arms. That's a really difficult science, and it's a slow, slow science. We know that the store associates will always be better at that."

Automation is taking a larger role in retail as companies like Wal-Mart work to improve efficiency and control costs. Last year, Wal-Mart introduced cash recycler machines at its stores and centralized invoicing operations, leading to the elimination of about 7,000 backroom positions at the store level.

But Wal-Mart said the in-store robots are not replacements for workers. Instead, the company described the technology as a tool intended to aid employees and improve customer service, creating a quicker way to ensure that the right items are in the right places with accurate prices when shoppers search for them.

"It has an objective to go look at certain things," Crecelius said. "For example, we might have it run very early before our morning associates show up so that when they show up, we have the right information to say this is what's most important. This is where we need your help right now and this is what's most important to the customer. It helps them figure out what's most important without having to go through the entire facility to figure those things out."

Wal-Mart continues to invest in technology as it competes with retailers like Amazon.com. It is using drones in distribution centers to check inventory more efficiently and keep up with customer demand. Last year, the retailer began testing large, orange towers in its stores that dispense products that have been ordered online by customers. The test has since expanded with Wal-Mart planning to have about 100 pickup towers installed in stores this year.

Brad Bogolea, chief executive officer of California-based Simbe Robotics, said earlier this month during the Northwest Arkansas Technology Summit that brick-and-mortar retailers like Wal-Mart must "embrace technology" to remain relevant.

His company has developed Tally, an autonomous device that performs store functions similar to the Bossa Nova robots being used by Wal-Mart. Bogolea said the goal of in-store helpers like Tally is to perform time-consuming tasks that free up employees to concentrate on other customer-facing jobs.

"Today retailers perform manual audits across their footprint to try to keep track of the health of product on the shelves," Bogolea said. "This is an incredibly mundane, monotonous, time-consuming process that takes retailers like Wal-Mart hundreds of hours every week. ... Any retailer in the top 15 spends over a quarter billion a year just performing shelf audits. There has to be a better way."

Bossa Nova's robots will operate during the day and have on-site technicians monitoring their actions as they interact with objects and customers. But Hitch said the robots are fully autonomous, and the technician is "100 percent hands off" during the tests. The technicians will move off-site next year, and the robots will continue to be monitored from afar.

Hitch added that Bossa Nova's robots have recently reached more than 620 miles of autonomous driving and have never had a collision. Three-dimensional imagery shows all the obstacles that are in an aisle, and the robot is programmed to move around them if possible, or return later. It also is careful around humans.

"If we encounter a person, we have this view of be respectful first," Hitch said. "The robot will always stop. We move backwards to move away from the person. So we're giving them the space."

Crecelius said there are a number of different ways the retailer can use the information collected during the 50-store test. The data will be analyzed by Wal-Mart employees, and the company will determine the next step.

There are no current plans to introduce the robots in additional stores, but Crecelius said the company has been "fairly impressed with how it works" so far.

"From our perspective, when you're doing things like this you're trying to improve your service to your customers and trying to make things simpler and easier for your associates at the same time," Crecelius said.

A Section on 10/26/2017

Print Headline: Robots to work in 50 Wal-Marts

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  • RBear
    October 26, 2017 at 6:24 a.m.

    Good use of automation to help keep Walmart stores stocked with merchandise. Even though inventory management should take care of this, somethings data gets out of sync. This helps make sure inventories are more accurate AND keep merchandise in the stores and out of the distribution centers.

  • Nodmcm
    October 26, 2017 at 8:43 a.m.

    Has anybody thought about the future of robotics and what is going to happen to all the workers who are displaced by technology? The robots are coming but we have to figure out how technology and human workers can coexist....or do the robots just take over and say goodbye to your job...with dim prospects of getting another job. This is something as a society we need to seriously consider.

  • DoubleBlind
    October 26, 2017 at 9:07 a.m.

    Yes, Nod, workers will absolutely be replaced and the expense of salaries, healthcare,etc., eliminated. It's why the topic of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) is a hot one around the world. The article here even cites WMT as lamely claiming 'robots won't replace workers.' Of course they will.
    *My primary issue is that WMT is using robots from a CA company. **WHY ISN'T WMT FUNDING A ROBOTICS STARTUP IN THE MUCH BALLYHOOED LRTP? OR AT UA? ASA? ANYONE HOME?***. Isn't Asa about to embark on a boondoggle to recruit Asian co's to AR? WHY LET WMT OFF THE HOOK SO EASILY? Crazy!

  • Whippersnapper
    October 26, 2017 at 9:15 a.m.

    Nod, this is what they said when machinery replaced master craftsmen. Ultimately, everyone's standard of living went up. It creates new jobs that we haven't even considered yet, and our overall work level goes down. In the 1800s, every family member (and there might be 8-15 people in the family) would put in 80 hours a week on the family farm just to get by when automated equipment replaced the people making things (and growing things). Today, 1-2 family members put in 30-50 hours per week to live comfortably

  • Zepplin1
    October 26, 2017 at 10:38 a.m.

    when i worked for southwest airlines, they said the creation of being able to book flights online would not replace call center employees. less than 5 years later they went from 9 call centers to 3.

  • hurricane46
    October 26, 2017 at 11:52 a.m.

    Robots?, will they also ignore the customers like the human workers do now?...LOL

  • RBear
    October 26, 2017 at 11:53 a.m.

    A first. I agree with Whipper on his points. Now, the real question will be IF people take the initiative to retool. This is not an option as we move forward. Robotics and AI are coming. People should be preparing.

  • JohnCampbell
    October 30, 2017 at 2:36 a.m.

    It's hard to believe that some people actually think that robots are going to replace humans thus leaving them unemployed. This story and some of the comments generated from it are a prime example. There simply isn't an ability to create a human being styled robot that actually can do everything a human can and that's what it would take for the nay sayers vision to come to pass. Life isn't a Hollywood movie where fiction comes to life on the big screen. I've had the honor and privilege in my life to see and work with some of the most sophisticated automation in the world. People, for whatever reason, don't stop to think about what it takes to produce just one tiny aspect of it nor the costs. Some assume that everything can be simply automated where the human hand and mind has no need to exist for an end product. Anyone who thinks that the grocery store or something like a Walmart can simply be run by machines is chasing a fools errand and Walmart, like anyone else in business, is well aware of that.

    The one place that automation has been tried to simplify and cut down on employee overhead is the checkout clerk. Keep in mind that this aspect is not the one I was originally referring to. The problem with it is no one wants to have their life run by automation, yet that's exactly what happens when a machine is attempting to do the job of a checkout clerk. If I have to go to a line only to be forced to place my would-be purchase in or on a machine in some specific way to accomplish the task then that is automation running my life. It's highly resented. I will go elsewhere and elsewhere will be there. Thus the automated checkout clerk is a failure. That's just one example.

    Getting back to my original thought, consider what it takes just to produce a single robot to do the most simplistic job. That same robot is immediately obsolete the moment any part of that job is altered. Now try adding that up for all things that a human being does in just one day at a Walmart or any other store. One could "ya, but" this to death, but it will not change the reality. A conveyor belt, as an example, can eliminate the need for a person to carry an object from point "A" to point "B", however, someone has to feed the conveyor belt and someone has to receive the item at the other end. Then there has to be someone to maintain the conveyor belt and when it breaks down you had better have enough people standing by to cover for it while it's being repaired. What was the gain of the conveyor belt? Less injuries to staff and much faster volume transfer from point to point. How many jobs did it eliminate? None. In fact, it required an even more highly trained individual to maintain the conveyor belt and that's not even a start on all the jobs created to build the conveyor belt to begin with. Now change just one aspect that requires a change in the conveyor belt for the conveyor belt to be able to handle it and the associated costs. Reality is a hard teacher.

  • rdon0548
    October 30, 2017 at 10:06 a.m.

    I work for a large building supply firm. We have 6 registers and 4 self service registers. We are getting ready to eliminate 2 of the regular cash registers. On the floor we are so busy with 15 other things we can barely wait on customers as they pass through the department. Management last week had to cut 250 hours as it was the end of the quarter. Yes, 250 hours. We have about 135 employees, only about 35 full timers. So the burden seems to fall on the part timers to loose the hours. Each morning specially marked counters get first attention for restocking, etc. A lot of merchandise in my dept has to be wrapped with theft prevention tags
    that the night stockers simply put on the shelf. It is up to us to find it and tag it. Yesterday I wrapped 30 tools that had been on the shelf for several days.

    With this scenario and all the other work we do such as helping another dept or answering phone calls we can barely find time to take proper care of the customer's needs. It is a bunch of crap.

  • DoubleBlind
    October 30, 2017 at 10:30 a.m.

    No one is saying AI will replace all jobs. But even if they replace say 5% of jobs, that's more than 7.5million jobs according to Bureau of Labor Statistics workforce sizing. That's not the almost 9million lost during the 2007-10 recession, but it's still a lot of jobs, and jobs that won't come back. It would more than double the unemployment rate to 10%. And that number will accelerate as AI improves. Most manufacturing jobs have been lost to automation; far more than those lost to trade. Net displacement will be significant in even conservative scenarios.

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