In addition to Walmart‘s highly automated warehouses, the retail conglomerate has slowly started introducing robots to its store aisles, beginning with 50 stores in 2017 and increasing to 350 stores this year. Designed to strictly act as tools for the company instead of interaction points for customers, the robots have one job and one job only: to scan shelves searching for out-of-stock items. Human employees still need to replenish missing items located by the robot, but the scanning itself eliminates a major time sucker for the shop personnel.
One of the main concerns robotics company Bossa Nova faced when designing Walmart’s shelf-scanning robots was ensuring seamless integration amongst human shoppers and employees. Neither group has been overly comfortable with the robots so far, as employees fear for their jobs and customers aren’t quite sure how to interact with the 6-foot-tall robots. According to The Washington Post, “many Walmart workers said they had long feared robots would one day take their jobs, but they had not expected this strange transition era in which they are working alongside machines that can be as brittle, clumsy and easily baffled by the messy realities of big-box retail as a human worker can be.”
Bossa Nova’s method of facilitating and troubleshooting the tension of these new, uncharted relationships, is to get straight to the point by allowing the robots to roam free in aisles instead of giving them their own lanes. After a few trial and error periods testing out various way-finding systems to indicate the robot’s intended direction (think humanlike eyes or car turn signals), Bossa Nova settled on a rotating ring of light. The company believes that, “pioneering companies owe it to society to figure out the right convention for the way robots express intent and indicate presence,” and that robot systems need to be standardized, “so people don’t have to learn how to interpret different robots,” similar to how automotive companies standardized the modern turn signal. Customers can begin preparing for an even larger invasion, as more robots are expected to appear on Walmart’s aisles in 2020.
In other retail news, Forever 21 may file for bankruptcy.