Walmart brings shelf-scanning robot to Santa Clarita

Walmart is using its new shelf-scanning technology at one location in Santa Clarita. Walmart photo

The next time you’re shopping at Walmart on Kelly Johnson Parkway in Santa Clarita, you just might share the aisle with a shelf-scanning robot on wheels.

It won’t make much noise, if any. It’ll shine a light. It’ll roll around the corner to the next aisle.

“We’ve had two kinds of customer reaction,” Walmart spokeswoman Tiffany Wilson told The Signal this week. “Some customers are fascinated and stare at it in awe. … The other reaction we get, the most common reaction, is people completely ignore it. They are aware of it, but they have other things to do. They have shopping to do.”

The automated unit, produced by San Francisco-based Bossa Nova Robotics, isn’t a novelty. It has a job: To improve Walmart shoppers’ experience while empowering the store’s associates to better serve customers.

Following years of testing, Walmart expanded the use of robots to 50 of its locations this week, including four Southern California stores, with the Santa Clarita location joining Burbank, Lancaster and Palmdale. Using artificial intelligence and machine learning, the rolling retail robots are built to identify shelves that are in short supply, incorrect pricing and missing labels.

A single robot can navigate dozens of aisles in less than an hour to provide “near real-time views of what areas of the store need the most attention,” according to a Walmart news release.

What’s the impact on customers?

“It means the item is going to be there, in the right place, at the right price,” Wilson said.

Walmart also predicts the shelf-scanning technology will improve store associates’ availability to customers since those workers will no longer be required to spend time on “tedious tasks that are repeatable and predictable – like scanning shelves for out-of-stocks.”

“Our associates see the opportunity for this technology to focus on tasks that are repeatable, predictable and manual – freeing up their time to focus on selling merchandise and serving customers, which they tell us have always been the most exciting parts of working in retail,” said Panthi Patel, Walmart store manager in Burbank. “Our approach is unique: We see technology as a tremendous opportunity to empower our people because we know how vital the human touch is to delivering for our customers.”

The robots are programmed with each store’s unique layout and also equipped to detect obstacles, including people.

“If you get in the way of it, it’ll reroute,” Wilson said.

While the robots are qualified to handle some jobs typically done by people, Wilson said Walmart has not introduced AI technology as a means to negatively impact its human workforce, instead re-emphasizing the company’s desire to improve customer experience and employee satisfaction through a “combination of people and robots.”

Also, Wilson pointed to Walmart’s creation of some 30,000 jobs nationally over the past two years to handle online grocery pick-up and delivery.

“Those are jobs that wouldn’t have existed if we didn’t have the technology,” she said and added, “The jobs may shift as retail evolves but we will always need great people in our stores.”

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