Walmart plans to add over 4,000 robot workers
Retail giant adds robot cleaners, shelf scanners, but critics says human jobs will go
US mega retailer Walmart has announced that it will be adding over 4,000 robots to its stores - but it could mean job losses for humans.
The supermarket chain has said it plans to roll out 1,500 new autonomous floor cleaners, 300 shelf scanners, 1,200 FAST Unloaders and 900 Pickup Towers.
Walmart has been trialling robot solutions since last year, and had already announced plans to use robots in a number of roles, but it has now said it will use many more robots in stores across America.
The Auto-C floor cleaner is able to operate while the store is open, replacing a human-operated floor scrubbing machine that would normally take two hours to scrub a store's floor space.
Walmart already said it would deploy 360 Auto-Cs, but has increased this to 1,860 in total.
The Auto-S shelf-scanning robot scans items on store shelves to help ensure availability, correct shelf location, and price accuracy.
Working with the shelf scanner, the FAST Unloader automatically scans and sorts items unloaded from trucks based on priority and department.
The Pickup Tower acts like a giant vending machine to dispense customer's online shopping orders.
Walmart said that the robot deployments will mean that a store that can function seamlessly, with better stocking and visibility of products for customers, and freeing up store staff for other tasks.
John Crecelius, senior vice president of Central Operations for Walmart US said: "Our associates immediately understood the opportunity for the new technology to free them up from focusing on tasks that are repeatable, predictable and manual.
"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."
Critics of Walmart, which has often been accused of mistreating staff and preventing staff from forming unions, said that the move to robot staff could be seen as just another move to remove lower-paid staff from the equation.
Arthur Wheaton, director of Western NY Labor and Environmental Programs for the Worker Institute at Cornell University, said: "Walmart's move to robotics in more of their stores is not surprising. Robots do not organize unions and robots do not demand a living wage. Robots can have some advantages in regards to doing repetitive, dangerous or low value added work. Robots and automation can assist workers in doing their job and do not always result in fewer workers. They tend to displace lower wage workers doing repetitive tasks and increase higher paid workers designing software, maintenance and installation.
"The tight labor market in many areas has made hiring low skill workers more difficult for companies refusing to pay living wages. Walmart is trying to leverage its brick and mortar store locations at a time when many competitors have closed their brick and mortar stores. The retail industry is known for low margins and lots of competition.
"Robots are one tool and not the entire answer to the problems facing retail today. McDonald's has also installed kiosks and machines to assist or replace staff at their locations. Self-checkouts at grocery stores keep expanding as well. In a tight labor market, companies look to meet customer demands in a cost effective way."
A Walmart spokesperson told the TechCrunch website that the use of robots has actually improved staff retention as personnel are able to focus more on enjoyable tasks like serving customers.
"What we're seeing so far suggests investments in store technology are shaping how we think about turnover and hours. The technology is automating pieces of work or tasks, rather than entire jobs.
"As that's happening, we have been able to use many of the hours being saved in other areas of the store - focused more on service and selling for customers.... The result so far: we've seen our US store associate turnover reduced year-over-year."
Walmart also said that it has added over 40,000 jobs in online grocery picking in-store, in the past 18 months, jobs which did not exist before now.