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Walmart inventory bots flopped. Will Sam’s succeed? – RetailWire

Walmart inventory bots flopped. Will Sam’s succeed? – RetailWire

Inventory management Operations Retail Tech Robotics Sam's Club Stop & Shop Supermarkets Walmart Warehouse Clubs Feb 10, 2022by Matthew Stern

Inventory tracking robots did not work out for Walmart, but now the company is trying them out at Sam’s Club.

Walmart is introducing 600 floor cleaner robots to Sam’s Club. The devices, supplied by Brain Corp., are also fitted with shelf-scanning technology to take stock of inventory while they work, according to The Street. The robots will be present in every Sam’s Club location.

In November of 2020, Walmart ended its pilot of standalone shelf inventory robots after concluding that it was less expensive to simply leave the task of noting out-of-stocks to the employees working the shelves. Walmart also registered concerns about customers reacting poorly to seeing the inventory robots roaming the aisles. The retailer had about 500 inventory robots operating in 7,400 stores before the pilot was ended.

In-store robotics are becoming a more frequent fixture at large grocers with much of the technology being adopted to manage back-of-house operations. More grocers are managing picking and packing through robotic solutions.

Other grocers have also piloted robots in the customer-facing portion of their operations. Stop & Shop began putting the googly-eyed, hazard detecting Marty the Robot in stores in 2019. The robot has not proven popular, especially since the beginning of the pandemic. As social distancing rules were put into place nationwide, Stop & Shop customers began to complain that the looming presence of Marty was preventing them from maintaining distance from one another, according to Mashable.

While it may be perplexing that Walmart would implement technology in Sam’s Club similar to the kind that failed in its mainline stores, scan and go technology, which has remained in consistent use at Sam’s Club, was piloted and dropped twice at Walmart. The first pilot ran from 2012 to 2014 and the second ran from 2017 to 2018.

Most recently, Walmart introduced a scan and go option as part of its Walmart+ loyalty program, available to use through that smartphone app.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Why factors make you think that inventory robots may have success at Sam’s Club in light of the experience at Walmart? What do you think the most valuable use of front-of-house robots is in grocery?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.Braintrust"The only question is why Walmart didn’t beta-test the bots in Sam’s to begin with."

Carol SpieckermanPresident, Spieckerman Retail

Carol SpieckermanPresident, Spieckerman Retail

"Just say no to robots and invest the money into hiring more humans and training them better."

John KarolefskiEditor-in-Chief, CPGmatters

John KarolefskiEditor-in-Chief, CPGmatters

"They may do better at Sam’s because a warehouse environment is more aligned with a large machine presence."

Melissa MinkowDirector, Retail Strategy, CI&T

Melissa MinkowDirector, Retail Strategy, CI&T

Join the Discussion!

19 Comments on "Walmart inventory bots flopped. Will Sam’s succeed?"

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Sort by:newest | oldest| most votedBrainTrustNeil SaundersManaging Director, GlobalData1 day 22 hours ago

There’s nothing wrong with experimenting in robotics, after all how else will retailers find out what works and what doesn’t? However just because technologies exist doesn’t mean they will be useful or that they should be deployed on a permanent basis for every activity. Floor cleaning is an example of a simple task that, when done by a robot, can save labor time. Out-of-stocks are a more complex situation as all the robots did was alert to staff to a gap and it was still reliant on manual labor to fill those gaps.

5|0- Share Hide Replies ∧BrainTrustMark RyskiFounder, CEO & Author, HeadCount Corporation1 day 22 hours ago

I suspect that for robots in a warehouse club large open spaces is part of the answer. Also, it’s hard to know if there were technology differences in what was being used, so Walmart may have been using a less effective solution. While robots are still very much a work in progress, there is no question in my mind that they will ultimately be widely deployed to eliminate the mundane tasks that humans do today. The fits and starts are just part of the evolutionary process.

4|0- Share Hide Replies ∧BrainTrustLiza AmlaniPrincipal and Founder, Retail Strategy Group1 day 22 hours ago

The fact is Sam’s Club is a different retail model and nothing like a Walmart. From the store layout to the product mix, this technology could absolutely work for Sam’s. Enabling innovative inventory solutions should be top priority for retailers considering today’s challenge with labor force and increase in theft. Tools in assisting in loss prevention strategy with real-time inventory visibility is critical. It is a game changer.

3|0- Share Hide Replies ∧BrainTrustCarol SpieckermanPresident, Spieckerman Retail1 day 22 hours ago

The Sam’s environment is far more conducive to running these types of tests. Sam’s Club aisles are wider, SKU counts and categories are fewer, product sizes are larger, and traffic is generally more manageable. The only question is why Walmart didn’t beta-test the bots in Sam’s to begin with.

5|0- Share Hide Replies ∧BrainTrustDave BrunoDirector, Retail Market Insights, Aptos1 day 22 hours ago

Floor cleaning robots roaming the wide warehouse aisles at Sam’s Club feels much less disconcerting than the much tighter spaces in a typical Walmart store. I suspect Sam’s shoppers will not object. But I hope the eventual goal is to do more than simply identify inventory holes in shelves…

1|0- Share Hide Replies ∧BrainTrustBob PhibbsPresident/CEO, The Retail Doctor1 day 22 hours ago

It is far cheaper to put a Wi-Fi camera every eight feet looking at the shelves and taking pictures every half hour, uploading them to the cloud, matching to ideal inventory, sending the picture list to the distribution center or the back of the store and having the inventory refreshed. Robots including self-checkout always sound like a great option and inevitably we see a few years later they don’t live up to the promise. Sometimes the answers don’t have to be so high tech they just need to be used smarter.

4|0- Share Hide Replies ∧BrainTrustDavid NaumannMarketing Strategy Lead - Retail, Travel & Distribution, Verizon1 day 22 hours ago

Based on the information I have read about the Walmart and Sam’s Club robot pilots, it appears that that there is one big difference. The original robot pilot at Walmart only included inventory tracking capabilities. The new robot pilot at Sam’s Club combines floor scrubbing and inventory scanning on the same robot. If this is true, the business case for the robots may be more compelling with a faster ROI.

2|0- Share Hide Replies ∧BrainTrustKen MorrisManaging Partner Cambridge Retail Advisors1 day 22 hours ago

That robot in the photo looks like it takes up almost as much aisle space as an Instacart shopper! Who thought it was a good idea to have a robot the size of Philadelphia roam the aisles and scare children and some parents to death? Maybe Sam’s has wider aisles and fewer children. I think the robots must be used after hours and perhaps leverage RFID scanning for their inventory tasks. Efficiency gains from robotics in the back room have been proven to be a game changer. Besides, the best place for robots is in a back room where they can go about their business without being distracted by shoppers.

3|0- Share Hide Replies ∧BrainTrustJeff SwardFounding Partner, Merchandising Metrics1 day 22 hours ago

This sounds more like a great learning experience than a flop.If the robots turned out to be duplicative of employees already working the aisles, then lesson learned.Being financially inefficient is not the same as the robots can’t do the work.And in a warehouse setting, the dynamic between robots and employees working the aisles may be completely different.This is exactly the kind of testing that is called for these days.Fail fast and move on to the next testable scenario.

2|0- Share Hide Replies ∧BrainTrustMelissa MinkowDirector, Retail Strategy, CI&T1 day 22 hours ago

They may do better at Sam’s because a warehouse environment is more aligned with a large machine presence. However technology needs to actually add value, not just exist to prove that a company is forward-thinking. It doesn’t seem as though this technology really made Walmart more efficient.

1|0- Share Hide Replies ∧BrainTrustPerry KramerManaging Partner, Retail Consulting Partners1 day 21 hours ago

Piloting robots in the club format has several advantages over the larger Big Box format of Walmart.The larger aisles give customers much more room to move around the robots.Having an environment with 5,000 SKUs give or take 1,000 will make the accuracy of the inventory function much more effective as store associates can quickly react and replenish the inventory from the backstock locations which are usually nearby. Additionally, the club format drives a slightly different set of customer experience expectations which align more with seeing this type of technology. Lastly, the recent increase in retail salaries driven by the challenges in hiring people results in robots having an improved ROI.

1|0- Share Hide Replies ∧BrainTrustGary SankaryRetail Industry Strategy, Esri1 day 21 hours ago

There are two factors in my mind that might contribute to the success of robots at Sam’s Club vs. Walmart.

  1. The inventory challenges at Sam’s Club are much less complicated than they are at a Walmart store, the number of SKUs is smaller and the fixtures and displays are less complicated. No peg board for example (I don’t think). I also think the customers’ expectations for in-stocks at a Sam’s are different than at a Walmart.
  2. Customers at a Sam’s Club are used to walking around equipment like forklifts and pallet jacks. Robots might be more accepted in that environment.
2|0- Share Hide Replies ∧BrainTrustRaj B. ShroffFounder & Principal, PINE 1 day 21 hours ago

I totally agree with Bob Phibbs, robots seem completely unnecessary and actually archaic for this application. It seems cameras or even shelf tech can get you there much easier and can scale up for other uses, such as retail media. I think this is an example of technology leading for tech’s sake, rather than taking a real look at the problem they are trying to solve and finding the best way to solve it.

Glad they tried it out at Walmart, I will be curious how it does at Sam’s. It’s good to experiment, maybe some other learnings will come out of the test.

1|0- Share Hide Replies ∧BrainTrustJeff WeidauerPrincipal, SSR Retail LLC1 day 21 hours ago

Robots are interesting in the abstract, but their beeping presence in a busy store isn’t welcome. There are other, less intrusive methods for tracking inventory than a giant Roomba. Until robots can restock the shelf it’s unlikely that this will be a viable solution.

1|0- Share Hide Replies ∧BrainTrustRyan MathewsFounder, CEO, Black Monk Consulting1 day 21 hours ago

This is another example of, “just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” The issue isn’t the width of the aisles, it’s that apparently autonomous robots bother people on lots of levels. First, they spark all the paranoia about, “the machines are coming to take our jobs and control our lives.” Next, people are nervous about autonomous anything, so you need to sell consumers on the safety issues. Next, they aren’t aesthetically pleasing. They don’t look like anything you want that close to yourself or your children. Finally, it’s a retailer-centric solution. Consumers don’t see a solution to a problem they have, especially since they think you should never be out-of-stock in the first place. Rational objections? Maybe not, but my bet is that the interface and not knowing how to interact with a robot are the real issue even if no focus group participant would ever admit it.

3|0- Share Hide Replies ∧BrainTrustAnanda ChakravartyRetail Thought Leader1 day 20 hours agoSam’s Clubs are effectively warehouse club operations, so seeing the robots will have less impact to customers. Many items are not floor level – meaning ladders are necessary to see what’s stacked, hence these types of robots can execute this type of task much faster and more efficiently. Ultimately, it will come down to cost – the robots have to be lower in cost per store than a few hours of a part time associate’s wages. Maintenance and management costs and time need to be reduced to make the robots valuable additions to the staff. Lastly, employees need to believe that the robots aren’t doing their jobs for them. The most valuable use of front-of-house robots for grocery might just be cleaning the floors – I’m thinking iRobot’s Roomba for retailers. Inventory counting can change, and needs reprogramming based on how much flexibility the store needs to move items around. Spill spotting and cleanup is another use. Robots can also enable multi-lingual communication with customers, directions to the restrooms or to specific product aisles –… Read more »1|0- Share Hide Replies ∧BrainTrustJohn KarolefskiEditor-in-Chief, CPGmatters1 day 19 hours ago

So, Walmart concluded that it was less expensive to simply leave the task of noting out-of-stocks to the employees working the shelves. Also, customers reacting poorly to seeing the inventory robots roaming the aisles. Meanwhile, Marty the Robot in Stop & Shop stores has not proven popular.

Wow! What a surprise! Any deep-thinking analyst who thought these tin men would be an asset to grocers needs to read the above paragraph again.

Just say no to robots and invest the money into hiring more humans and training them better.

1|0- Share Hide Replies ∧GuestSSheiner1 day 19 hours ago

Shelf-level information is not just about identifying out-of-stock products. The images that robots collect can be used for price integrity, planogram compliance, promotion verification, product location for shopping apps, and as inputs to workforce management software.By combining cleaning with scanning, Brain Corp has dramatically reduced the cost of data collection.Data that, when integrated into operations, can make a real difference.

2|0- Share Hide Replies ∧GuestJimBrownellPartner, GreyOrange20 hours 45 minutes agoRobotics provide for a more dynamic response to these types of situations, i.e. as stores re-merchandise, change layouts, move floor displays, adjust lighting, respond to environmental situations – robots are much more adept at adjusting dynamically to the new playing field. Fixed mounted scanners or cameras require adjustments and tuning individually for each store no matter how consistent in design, so these solutions will become less effective over time. Robots can take any shape or form, work any hours, and require very little supervision when implemented correctly. Whether it be inventory analysis, planogram adherence, shrink or shortage, etc., robots can adjust through software to changing requirements – remotely managed to require very little on-site support. I would contend here it wasn’t a well-thoughtout implementation of robotics that doomed the pilot vs the technology used. You can’t just “pave the cow path” when it comes to technology implementations. You need to start over targeting the problems, not the symptoms. Plus, this information could automatically feed planogram-based replenishment models to a fulfillment or distribution center or, in… Read more »0|0- Share Hide Replies ∧