Walmart tests robots that stock shelves, free up workers
- Walmart is testing robots in some of its California and Arkansas stores, Reuters reports. The retail giant is apparently automating stores to free up associates for customer service and to help stores operate more efficiently.
- Programmed to move up and down aisles, the 2-foot robots have electronic eyes that scan merchandise for out-of-stock, mislabeled, missing or incorrectly placed items. The retailer plans to place robots in 50 stores across the nation by January's end.
- Jeremy King, Walmart's CTO, told Reuters that robots are 50% more efficient than humans performing the same task. He said robots can scan shelves three times faster and more accurately than humans, who can scan shelves only twice a week.
It's an open secret in the retail industry that Walmart, the world's largest employer, is locked in a massive arms race with e-commerce companies for revenue, Amazon being the foremost competitor. That's part one of the backdrop to Walmart's announcement: the need for innovation in an industry experiencing massive disruption.
Part two is the steady decline of retail employment in 2017, a growing of which is being attributed to online shopping and the closing of brick and mortar. While not quite there yet, automation could soon be blamed, as well. A Cornerstone Capital Group study released in May predicts that automation could claim between 6 and 7.5 million retail jobs. The study also said cashiers, 73% of whom are women, stand to lose the most jobs to automation.
Walmart doesn't mention that robots will replace cashiers or other positions. But given robots' high rate of efficiency and studies showing that automation targets repetitive tasks, more retail positions could go the way of the robot.
HR pros — even those outside of retail — will need to be prepared for the changes brought by automation. That may entail deciding who will manage the robots and whether those managers will have the skills needed to do so; anticipating what new jobs might emerge; and evaluating how automation will affect recruiting strategies. Walmart, to its credit, has innovated within its employee training program in order to prepare workers for those changes.
Employers will also need to re-evaluate their strategies for attracting the most talented candidates for new jobs. Are their benefits packages going to be enticing enough for the few ideal candidates remaining? Amazon has picked up on this: one new Amazon hiree told HR Dive that he left his job at Walmart for an Amazon associate position in part because of the better benefits offered by the latter.
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