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Could Walmart’s In-Store Robots Spell the End of Shelf-Scanning Staffers?

Shopping alongside robots in retail stores is getting that much closer to becoming a ho-hum reality for millions of Americans.

Walmart has learned that for consumers, the novelty of six-foot robots rolling through store aisles wears off fairly quickly, according to a Fortune article. Kids tend to respect the hard-working robots, while grown-ups tend to mess with them and teenagers—well, mischief tends to be second nature among the high-school crowd, the article noted. Teens have “deliberately kicked” the robots, the article said.

These learnings could fuel additional rollouts of robots, which Walmart launched in 50 stores this past November though the very first Bossa Nova bot appeared in one of its stores about two years ago. The big-box retailer is using the bots to monitor store shelves, ensuring product is located where it should be and that price tags are displayed accurately. The robots can’t fix any of these issues themselves so they communicate any anomalies to store employees, who can restock and correct tags as needed.

It’s a better use of workers’ time, and could point to the looming decline of staff spending countless hours armed with scanner guns and conducting tedious inventory counts.

For retailers with large footprints—especially those peddling mass merchandise—robots present an enticing opportunity: automating labor-intensive store processes while improving accuracy and freeing sales associates to focus on value-adding opportunities. It’s one way to better compete with the likes of Amazon, which relies on automation and robotics in many parts of its business to keep prices low for customers.

In fact, retailers of all kinds have been testing out customer-facing robots. Lowe’s launched the LoweBot in a San Francisco store late in 2016, focusing on how the bot can offer customer service by locating products and looking up item information. Also in 2016, Walmart’s big-box peer Target trialed the Tally robot by Simbe Robotics in a similar shelf-scanning application. The Mall of America added a Pepper robot, which features a more humanoid appearance, to help shoppers navigate the more than 96-acre facility.

Advancements in robotics, artificial intelligence and machine learning are powering the development of the next-gen intelligent robots for applications ranging from industrial to commercial to consumer, Dr. Jing Bing Zhang, research director of robotics at IDC Manufacturing Insights, said in a statement.

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“Robots with innovative capabilities such as ease of use, self-diagnosis, zero downtime, learning and adaptation, and cognitive interaction are emerging and driving wider adoption of robotics in the manufacturing and resource industries and enabling new uses in healthcare, insurance, education, and retail,” Zhang said.