Walmart, the world’s largest retailer following the latest tech trend is going all in on robots. It plans to deploy thousands of robots for lower level jobs in its 5000 of 11, 348 stores in US. In a statement released on its blog on Tuesday, the retail giant said that it was unleashing a number of technological innovations, including autonomous floor cleaners, shelf-scanners, conveyor belts, and “pickup towers” on stores across the United States.
Elizabeth Walker from Walmart Corporate Affairs says, “Every hero needs a sidekick, and some of the best have been automated. Smart assistants have huge potential to make busy stores run more smoothly, so Walmart has been pioneering new technologies to minimize the time an associate spends on the more mundane and repetitive tasks like cleaning floors or checking inventory on a shelf. This gives associates more of an opportunity to do what they’re uniquely qualified for: serve customers face-to-face on the sales floor.”
Further Walmart announced that it would be adding 1,500 new floor cleaners, 300 more shelf-scanners, 1,200 conveyor belts, and 900 new pickup towers. It has been tested in dozens of markets and hundreds of stores to prove the effectiveness of the robots. Also, the idea of replacing people with machines for certain job roles will reduce costs for Walmart. Perhaps if you are not hiring people, they can’t quit, demand a living wage, take sick days off etc resulting in better margins and efficiencies.
According to Walmart CEO Doug McMillon, “Automating certain tasks gives associates more time to do work they find fulfilling and to interact with customers. Continuing this logic, the retailer points to robots as a source of greater efficiency, increased sales and reduced employee turnover.”
“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 US, said in an interview with BBC Insider. “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.”
With the war for talent raging on in the world of retail and the demand for minimum wage hikes a frequent occurrence, Walmart’s expanding robot army is a signal that the company is committed to keeping labor costs down.
Does that mean at the cost of cutting jobs or employee restructuring? Walmart has not specified what number of jobs it will cut as a result of this move. But when automation takes place and at the largest retailer in the US is Walmart, significant job losses can be expected to hit.
Jobs, jobs, Jobs. As Walmart put robots in half it stores for a lot of different tasks, it does not mention how many jobs will be lost – perhaps it they are just an add on. @went1955 @cccalum https://t.co/0TH7ILcL1k
— Noel Sharkey (@NoelSharkey) April 11, 2019
Early last year, Bloomberg reported that Walmart is removing around 3500 store co-managers, a salaried role that acts as a lieutenant underneath each store manager. The U.S. in particular has an inordinately high proportion of employees performing routine functions that could be easily automated. As such, retail automation is bound to hit them the hardest. With costs on the rise, and Amazon as a constant looming threat that has resulted in the closing of thousands of mom-and-pop stores across the US, it was inevitable that Walmart would turn to automation as a way to stay competitive in the market.
As the largest retail employer in the US, transitions to an automated retailing model, it will leave a good proposition of the 7,04,000 strong US retail workforce either unemployed, underemployed or unready to transition into other jobs. How much Walmart assists its redundant workforce to transition to another livelihood will be litmus test to its widely held image of a caring employer in contrast to Amazon’s ruthless image.