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Walmart Ends Inventory-Tracking Robotics Trial in Stores: Report

Ahead of the holiday season, and amid a rise in e-commerce fulfillment demands and BOPIS and curbside pickup adoption, Walmart is putting more faith in its associates to monitor the inventory stocked on its shelves. The retail giant has ended its contract with Bossa Nova Robotics, which supplied robots in approximately 500 of Walmart’s more than 4,700 locations in the U.S., according to the Wall Street Journal.

The six-foot-tall, 15-camera inventory tracking robots weren’t meant to directly replace manual restocking tasks in the first place, but were designed to assist associates as they roamed the shelves. The robots scanned the shelves looking for missing items, sending that information back to a central server. From there, employees could find the right product in the back to replace on the shelf.

A Walmart spokesperson told Sourcing Journal that the retailer worked with Bossa Nova for five years to assist associates in store, but didn’t provide any details of the ending of the relationship.

“This was one idea we tried in roughly 500 stores just as we are trying other ideas in additional stores,” the Walmart spokeperson said. “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.”

This is an about-face from January, when Walmart first said that the Bossa Nova robots would soon feature in about 1,000 of its 4,700 U.S. stores.

While no concrete answer has been given for the end of the partnership, the report said that Walmart told the robotics company that it did not see “enough of an improvement” with the robots in the store.

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The evolving role of the store associate could have played a role in the decision as well. While associates prior to the Covid-19 pandemic traditionally were tasked with some combination of customer-facing and back-office roles within the store, the role now requires more of these employees to manage curbside and in-store pickup processes, which often means one-on-one human interaction.

These workers are likely still using other technologies to monitor product counts and locations within the store as well, so with or without the robotics they may still be able to gain insight on where products are at all times.

But even then, robotics continues to be adopted throughout the retail industry in various ways, especially given the concerns about social distancing or the timeliness of insights passed to associates.

Since the pandemic began, robotics companies have been securing funding left and right for their perceived value in making the logistics and fulfillment process more efficient for warehouse and distribution center employees.

It’s also possible that the experiment just didn’t look good optically within a store, at least according to the opinion of one of Walmart’s lead decision makers. The WSJ report pointed to alleged concerns from Walmart U.S. chief executive John Furner, who expressed concerns over how shoppers react to seeing a robot working in a store.

The investment also could be related to simple capital allocation since the pandemic began. According to Walmart, the company has employed more than 500,000 new associates across its stores and supply chain since March.

The move has taken a toll on Bossa Nova, with the company reportedly seeing layoffs of around 50 percent, the WSJ report said. Bossa Nova co-founder Sarjoun Skaff, who was the company’s chief technology officer, had to take over as CEO in October when then-chief exec Stuart Pann left the position after less than nine months on the job.

Walmart isn’t exiting robotics experimentation entirely. The continued tests that the Walmart spokesperson could be referring to might be the retailer’s recent trials of automatic conveyor belts within backrooms that sort products to speed the process of unloading trucks that arrive at stores. And at Sam’s Club, Walmart recently reported it would bring Tennant’s floor scrubbing robots to all its 599 stores.

Walmart and Bossa Nova first publicly announced their collaboration in 2017, starting with 50 robots.