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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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  • PopMom
    October 30, 2017 at 11:09 a.m.

    Doubleblind,

    Yes. It starts with strong elementary and middle school math, science, and computer science and advances to high school computer science, engineering, and advanced math and science and robotics programs. My 10th grader is taking a very hard computer science class and an engineering class. He needs to get on the robotics team. (He struggles in English, but he is coming along.)

    Whipper is correct that technology can advance our way of lives. We still need people and the human touch for so many fields such as counseling etc.

  • Jamhawker
    October 30, 2017 at 11:13 a.m.

    These robots are performing the same duties that they do in massive warehouses scanning product bins for inventory management. If you are a warehouse worker or retail store employee who rotates between stock and checkout duties, you need to be worried about your job. There seems to be a denial of reality in a few posts here. Yes, robotics, AI, and automation are very real and very coming for jobs. You would think that people would have learned of the threat with automotive assembly plant jobs going away with robotics doing the painting and major welding jobs just for starters. That started nearly 40 years ago, and those jobs did not come back. The handful of jobs that were created by maintenance of said robotics hardware were few and far between compared to the loss of tens of thousands of assembly line jobs over the decades.

    Then there's retail, specifically grocery stores, that started opening up self checkout stations. My Kroger stores for example have six self checkout stations in each store. One employee watches over those while there are only MAYBE six manned checkout stations that are active at any given time (including one express line for those with just 10 items or less). And they all have lines, especially during peak times at the end of the workday and on the weekends.

    Finally, there are restaurants. Red Robin for example has a tablet based kiosk that you order from. You are not assigned a server and he/she does not even show up to meet you until your ordered items are delivered. And you may have several different servers tend to you through the meal. You don't even need to wait for the check because you already paid for it via debit/credit card when you placed your order at the kiosk. This has not only eliminated waiting staff jobs, but reduced their main source of income, tips. You don't need to tip the customary 15-20% because you are only getting minimal human service. You tip like you would at a buffet.

    And for Part II of the restaurant industry, there's fast food companies experimenting with robotics automation in food preparation. It's only a matter of time before robots will take over menial kitchen duties like burger flipping, french frying, and assembly prep work. In Japan, they already have entire automated fast food places where you just order from something that looks like a vending machine, and your food is prepped in the back by robots and delivered to you in a pickup window slot. So the point being is that automation is about to be taken to the next level, and take more jobs. But what I find more troubling is how we are slowly becoming detached from human interaction as society shifts towards a virtual world of communication and non-interaction with humans. It is psychologically not healthy for social skills. We can already see the results of that with youths who grew up texting and Facebooking each other instead of actually getting out of the house and interacting in the real world.

  • Whippersnapper
    November 1, 2017 at 10:40 a.m.

    DoubleBlind says... 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."
    .
    So, pinsetters at bowling alleys no longer exist because automation took those jobs away. Elevator operators no longer exist because technology took those jobs away. Milkmen no longer exist because technology took those jobs away. Ice cutters (and ice haulers, and all ice house related workers) no longer exist because technology took those jobs away. Airplane Listeners no longer exist because technology took those jobs away. Telephone operators have been almost eliminated because technology took those jobs away. Lamplighters no longer exist because technology took those jobs away. Railroad track laying folks no longer exist because they took those jobs away.
    .
    None of those jobs are coming back. Technology is a one way street unless it becomes a total reset (at which point, the last thing you will worry about will be your job)
    .
    The point is that jobs change over time, and new jobs spring into existence to replace them. The funny thing is that the more we advance, the more the new jobs focus on our leisure and enjoyment, because the drudgery "must do" stuff is done by technology. THIS IS THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD. Jobs get eliminated and other jobs spring up. If you are unwilling or unable to learn something new, it stinks to be you. If you have a working brain in your head and a willing attitude, you'll be fine.

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