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Walmart expanding shelf-scanning bots to avoid running out of stock

28 October 2017

Walmart Stores Inc is rolling out shelf-scanning robots in more than 50 US stores to replenish inventory faster and save employees time when products run out.

Walmart, the world's largest retailer, has been testing shelf-scanning robots in a handful of stores in Arkansas, Pennsylvania and California, where robotic employees have been roaming the aisles of Walmart stores for the past three years.

The retail corporation told CNN that the program is expanding to locations in El Paso and Fort Worth in Texas, and Jacksonville, Florida.

The bots will arrive by the end of January, and will expand Walmart's program to cover 50 stores in total. According to Mashable, the expansion did not surprise those familiar with the retail-giant sphere, as Walmart has spent the past few years doing everything and anything it can to speed up its infrastructure and beat back Amazon.

The approximately 2-foot (0.61-metre) robots come with a tower that is fitted with cameras that scan aisles to check stock and identify missing and misplaced items, incorrect prices and mislabelling. The robots pass that data to store employees, who then stock the shelves and fix errors.

Out-of-stock items are a big problem for retailers since they miss out on sales every time a shopper cannot find a product on store shelves.

''If you are running up and down the aisle and you want to decide if we are out of Cheerios or not, a human doesn't do that job very well, and they don't like it,'' Jeremy King, chief technology officer for Walmart US and ecommerce, told Reuters.

The company said the robots would not replace workers or affect employee headcount in stores.

The robots are 50 per cent more productive than their human counterparts and can scan shelves significantly more accurately and three times faster, King said. Store employees only have time to scan shelves about twice a week.

The idea of installing robots to automate retail is not new. Rival Inc uses small Kiva robots in its warehouses to handle picking and packing, saving almost 20 per cent in operating expenses.

For Walmart, the move is part of a broader effort to digitize its stores to make shopping faster.

In the past year, it has installed giant ''pickup towers'' that operate like self-service kiosks and where customers can pick up their online orders.

The company has also speeded up the checkout process by allowing customers to scan their own purchases, and it has digitized operations like pharmacy and financial services in stores.

Walmart has also been testing drones for home delivery, curbside pickup and checking warehouse inventories.

Many of Walmart's recent innovations have aimed to remove the human element from the mundane aspects of retail. In July, it rolled out giant vending machines to dispense pickup orders for customers, eliminating the need for human sorting and delivery. In June, it tested a self-serve grocery kiosk in one of its Oklahoma stores.

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