“You’ve got to listen to me! Elementary chaos theory tells us that all robots will eventually turn against their masters and run amok in an orgy of blood and kicking and the biting with the metal teeth and the hurting and shoving!”
If you reside in the subset of fans of "The Simpsons" who also happen to be retail watchers you might have been reminded of Professor Frink’s above quote upon the revelation—first reported in The Wall Street Journal last week—that the giant retailer Walmart was abruptly giving up on a plan to track inventory and shelf-tag accuracy by use of robots roaming the aisles of its stores.
And while there were no reports of an associated uprising, it was a surprising story to confront given all the attention that automation has been generating in retail lately—a lot of it passed along by people like me—that might be interpreted to mean that robots are a kind of inevitability in retail workplaces, and that once they arrive, there is no going back.
What this story reminds us, however, is that technological innovation in service of greater cost efficiency is what’s here to stay, but the specific means of achieving that are on pretty much their own to deliver. Indeed, that’s Walmart’s not-so-secret mission from the start—"Save Money to Live Better," doncha know—and when it discovered that this particular invention wasn’t aiding that mission, for whatever reason, it only made sense to cancel its contract with the vendor, the Bay Area startup Bossa Nova Robotics. Walmart reportedly was about halfway toward a plan announced early this year to expand the fleet to 1,000 of its stores, but in today’s test-fast-and-fail-fast world—another aspect of the tech field that’s become part of retail—moving on with haste is part of the bargain.
There was little concrete about the specific issues the sides may have encountered. Unverified online chatter from employees suggest that some stores may have wound up with inaccurate data, while others say sloppy conditions at stores to begin with—no doubt exacerbated by COVID disruption to the supply chain—could have led to such data troubles. The Journalcited sources saying that Walmart was discovering that with employees turned into busy shopping concierges to support a booming e-commerce business run largely from stores, they themselves are doing the job of inventory monitoring efficiently. Tom Ward, Walmart’s SVP of consumer product, has referred to proprietary innovation in worker handheld devices as also aiding the retailer’s inventory understanding.
Finally, there was speculation that shoppers in stores might not be comfortable sharing aisles with six-foot robots emitting a spooky bright light onto shelves.
I personally don’t buy that last explanation any more than I’d believe a rouge Bossa Nova took a bite out of Doug McMillon’s leg. And it doesn’t appear Walmart does either, as it proceeds full-speed ahead with time- and money-saving inventions like robotic floor sweepers and back-room sorters, unpiloted deliveries by car and drone, new workplace deployments or any of the other dozens of ideas the tech revolution promises can save money so shoppers can live better.
That said, Walmart not long ago had big ambitions for Bossa Nova—particularly as a means to connect the data they collected with the work employees could do to address the issues they revealed, proudly showing off the machines and associated workflow apps at press events. But it’s not as though those lessons went for naught. As a spokesperson told the Journal: “We learned a lot about how technology can assist associates, make jobs easier and provide a better customer experience. 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.”
At Bossa Nova, there have been layoffs and C-suite departures in recent months. The company hasn’t publicly commented on Walmart but its co-founder told TechCrunch that the pandemic “has forced us to streamline our operations and focus on our core technologies.”
“We have made stunning advances in AI and robotics. Our retail AI is the industry’s best and works as well on robots as with fixed cameras, and our hardware, autonomy and operations excelled in more than 500 of the world’s most challenging stores,” Sarjoun Skaff continued. “With the board’s full support, we continue deploying this technology with our partners in retail and in other fields.”
Other vendors in the tech space—focused on what they say is a $1 trillion opportunity to better address losses associated with stockouts, location errors and pricing errors—insist that opportunity remains despite their rival’s apparent setback.
“We’re not surprised by the Walmart news. Automated solutions must be accurate, actionable and frequent, or vendors end up losing retailers’ and associates’ trust. When that data isn’t delivering, it only creates additional work for the associates. We also believe that you need the right robot—if the robot’s presence is intimidating to shoppers, that is a problem,” Mark Cook, EVP of Retail Solutions for Trax, a software platform solution using computer vision gathered at shelf- and ceiling-mounted cameras, said in emailed comments to WGB.
“We don’t believe relying solely on human data collection is the right approach, either,” he added. “Retailers have been trying to solve the massive out-of-stock problem with humans for ages, but without success and at a great cost. … To win in this new retail environment, retailers must deliver on the essentials of product availability, while maintaining a positive shopper experience. That’s where humans perform best—when focusing on helping shoppers, rather than manual gap and price scanning, which can be solved through automation.”
Brad Bologea, co-founder and CEO of Bossa Nova rival Simbe Robotics, which is rolling out its own six-foot inventory trackers at retailers such as Schnuck Markets, largely agrees.
“Bossa Nova’s failure is not an indication of a lack of opportunity or necessity for retail robotics in the market,” Bologea said, adding that info on shelf availability, pricing and location robotics can find and process “simply cannot be efficiently solved by human workers … it’s not feasible from an operations standpoint.”
“Any technology decision for the retail industry is also about commitment and finding the best solution for the business case. Retailers are rightfully, carefully considering the right time to invest and the longevity and viability of specific robotics solutions. This is why the robotics industry is shifting to technology-as-a-service, allowing retailers to hold their vendors to strict [service level agreements], avoid engaging in multiyear investments and remain laser focused on ROI and real business impact,” he continued.
“The future of retail robotics is exciting, and it’s just getting started.”
The coronavirus pandemic has revealed new consumer problems that retailers need advanced technologies to solve. At Walmart, that’s meant acceleration of a range of solutions around shopping and fulfillment technologies to enable consumers to get what they need, and for workers to get them those things, in the way they want it, in-stores, at home or in their cars.
Speaking in a virtual interview this week at the Cowen & Co. Broadline & Grocery Executive Summit, Tom Ward, SVP of consumer product for Walmart and a key figure behind its technology boom, told interviewer Oliver Chen that the crisis has provided the retailer “really clear focus” on where it needed to devote its efforts.
“People at the beginning of the pandemic really wanted to get hold of items that they truly needed, whether that was the basics, the food and the consumables and the everyday items that we all need to run our lives, or whether it was more interesting items that help them engage in their work or school behaviors at home. Walmart was there to serve those needs,” Ward said, according to a Sentieo transcript. “And so as we saw those things unfold, solving these problems for the customer became very, very clear. And so that made it actually, really straightforward for us to focus our investment and our intention to solve those problems as they arose.”
What follows are seven areas Ward discussed.
“Who would have guessed previously that if you wanted to receive a delivery, you'd want it to be left on your doorstep without any contact with the delivery driver? That’s not something we'd have ever anticipated.”
Today, Ward said, the “vast majority” of deliveries are entirely unattended with consumers informed via messaging when their order arrives; Walmart’s 3,300 stores offering pickup can conduct the transaction without even opening a car window, through technologies provided. Another innovation—a “digital badge” identifying customers at risk to the virus—helped workers prioritize pickup service for them.
While Walmart is enthusiastically learning about the possibilities of microfulfillment technologies to enable more efficient picking of online orders—notably its deployment of Alert Innovations’ Alphabot system at select stores—it’s still in the testing stage.
“When they solve the right problem, when the math adds up, we can understand how this is going to scale and what it’s going to do for us, then we will lean in hard to those solutions. So I’m excited about what that might look like as it comes together in those tests, and obviously, you'll see more about that as it unfolds.”
Ward suggested the solution to the dilemma of the inherently inefficient order picking and fulfillment would likely be a combination of robotics like microfulfillment, ongoing experiments in automated delivery kiosks and technologies enabling store pickers to be more efficient. Personal shoppers on the store floor are typically picking eight orders at a time and are guided along the most efficient route to those items by an associate interface and an algorithmic-influenced substitution capabilities. “We’re as obsessed about the associate technology interface as we are about the customers because that makes them great personal shoppers, which means they can serve the customers really well," he said.
Walmart has already deployed thousands of Bossa Nova inventory robots in stores and has developed a proprietary FAST unloader technology to prioritize items getting from trucks onto shelves.
“If we're going to pick from these shelves, then we need to be obsessed about the inventory signal that we received from those products,” Ward explained. “And so getting the items from the truck to the shelf is an equally important journey, and it’s critical for both our physical in-store customers and our personal shoppers who are using that same shelf and enjoying those same benefits through the technology.
“Understanding the inventory levels … whether it’s through technologies like Bossa Nova or some of the in-house technology that we build in the handheld, helps to build a robust signal, and that signal is reflected both on the shelf edge for the physical customer and online for the digital customer,” he added
Though in the works well ahead of the pandemic, the merging of the separate “orange and blue” grocery and general merchandise buying apps—which became one of the most downloaded retail apps in the period—was a key achievement, Ward said.
“It was a great time to bring these two services together under one application to make really a one-stop shop for customers’ needs as it relates to their digital experience. And this is key to our omnichannel journey that we're on,” he said.
Making general merchandise available in a grocery shop helps Walmart’s margin mix and overall profitability, and had special resonance in the pandemic, where shoppers were ordering items like desks to enable work and school at home. “The pandemic pointed people to understand much more about what’s available at Walmart,” he added.
AI-powered basket-building technologies are harnessing massive troves of data to make intelligent selections and reminders for Walmart shoppers, Ward said. “There’s lots of great examples of this, and it’s always the small things people forget, maybe it's the tin foil, maybe it’s the barbecue skewers for grilling out, maybe it's the ink for the printer, whatever it might be. But we’re presenting those items to customers in an intelligent way to help remind them of things that they may have forgotten.”
AI has also enabled the recently launched Express Delivery offering, using inventory of items, drivers and product availability to enable a faster fulfillment option.
The recently announced launch of Walmart on the Instacart Marketplace in select locations “is another example of just another avenue to allow customers access to Walmart products and prices in different ways,” Ward said, though it too is something of an audition. “We’ll learn from it … and we’ll understand what moving forward looks like, whether it’s with our in-house solutions or other technologies that are yet to be discovered. We’re mostly obsessed with, how do you serve customers and get them access to Walmart?”