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Robot retreat: Walmart reverses automation of stores

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A day after Ocado Group PLC (LON:OCDO) deepens its investment in retail robotics, US giant Walmart Inc (NYSE:WMT) is backing out.

The world’s largest retailer is ending a contract with robotics company Bossa Nova Robotics, where shelf-scanning robots worked alongside humans in around 500 of its stores.

READ: Rise of the robots – Ocado enters non-food retail and logistics sectors with new acquisitions

According to the report in the Wall Street Journal, Walmart found that its human workers could do the job just as well.

Bossa Nova, whose robots use machine vision to scan shelves and identify what products needed restocking, said earlier this year that Walmart was planning to expand their use into 1,000 stores.

The coronavirus pandemic seems to have sparked the move, with the rise in online shopping resulting in Walmart finding it had more staff frequently walking the aisles to collect online orders, the WSJ said.

The report also highlighted a possible ESG angle – the social licence that retailers have with their local customers.

Walmart’s US chief executive John Furner was worried about what customers would think seeing robots in the company’s stores.

“We learned a lot about how technology can assist associates, make jobs easier and provide a better customer experience,” a company spokesperson told the newspaper. “We will continue testing new technologies and investing in our own processes and apps to best understand and track our inventory and help move products to our shelves as quickly as we can.”

Earlier in the week, Ocado spent US$300mln snapping up two robot-arm developers, including Kindred Systems, which specialises in ‘piece picking’ robots, a technology that is expected by those such as Amazon’s Jeff Bezos to replace humans entirely from the logistical layer of the retail industry, if not also construction and many other sectors.

Also this year companies in the UK such as Boots, Co-op Food and Eve Sleep have also invested in warehouse automation, with Amazon stepping up its delivery automation capabilities.

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