Brave New World Of Retail: Walmart’s Robots Are Just The Beginning

Brave New World Of Retail: Walmart’s Robots Are Just The Beginning

Joan VerdonJan 14, 2020, 07:00am

It’s a refrain heard repeatedly at this week’s National Retail Federation trade show and convention: Let the robots do what they do best, and free up human employees to do what they do best.
And the retail industry has decided that what robots do best (and what humans are bad at) is spotting when bottles of shampoo are sold out, or cans of soup are in the wrong place, and keeping track of when store shelves need to be replaced.
A clear sign that shelf-scanning robots and other automated inventory tracking systems have reached the tipping point came Monday with the news that Walmart is expanding its use of shelf-scanning robots to another 650 of its stores, bringing the number of robot-assisted Walmart stores to 1,000.
That news gave Bossa Nova, the robotics and retail tech company supplying Walmart’s robots, a boost at the trade show, where it was demonstrating its robots.
A number of other companies at the show also were showing off their versions of scanning robots, including Badger Technologies, a division of tech corporation Jabil; and Savioke, which has partnered with Brain Corp to add shelf-scanning capabilities to its floor cleaning and hospitality robots.
One company,, is demonstrating an inventory-counting, camera-equipped drone designed to scan boxes on warehouse shelves.
Even more exhibitors are displaying automated shelf scanning systems that use cameras mounted on shelves to monitor inventory levels combined with software that analyzes the information collected by the camera to alert store employees when shelves need to be restocked.
“Instead of spending time on your schedule looking for problems, you can start fixing them. You become data driven,” he said. “Now, when the [work] shift shows up they already know what problems need to be solved.”
Store employees get a list of problems found by the robot – out of stocks, misplaced products, pricing mistakes. The list, Skaff said, is organized by severity of the problem, “so you hit the biggest first, and you improve your store fast.”
Does Skaff envision his robots evolving to where they can restock the shelves without the help of a human? No, says Skaff. That wouldn’t be a smart use of the robot’s time, because restocking shelves is something humans are way better at.
“In restocking a shelf, it would be competing with a human and a human is uncannily good at picking and placing,” Skaff said. “Robots have a long way to go before they will be good enough to compete with a human at restocking a shelf.”
Instead, Bossa Nova plans to concentrate on supplying more information to retailers about what the robots do best – scanning and recording and memorizing information such as how quickly a brand of soda sells out, or which shelf placement produced the most sales, or other data about the physical environment in the store.
Bossa Nova, which was born in Pittsburgh, grew out of Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute. It now has offices in San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Bentonville, Arkansas, Mountain View, California, Leetsdale, Pennsylvania, and Sheffield, England. It started as a toy company, producing robotic toys, and switched to retail robots in 2012.
Intel introduced Bossa Nova to retail tech executives in 2013, hosting the company at the retail show in 2013.
“In 2013, nobody had a robot in a store or an inkling of a robot scanning the shelves,” Skaff said. Bossa Nova initially had a hard time convincing investors that there was a future in inventing technology to help brick-and-mortar stores. In 2013, 2014, 2015, he said, everyone thought Amazon would kill off brick and mortar—“until Amazon bought Whole Foods. That changed the conversation,” Skaff said.
Now, Bossa Nova and other retail tech companies are changing the conversation again. And the result is, this year, at the retail show, the country’s largest retailers are talking about their plans to use robots, artificial intelligence, computer vision, and machine learning as a way to let their human staff do what humans do best, and connect with other humans – their customers.


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