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Coming to a Walmart near you? Robo-shopping carts

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America’s biggest private employer might be getting ready to outsource some jobs to robots.

Walmart ( WMT) has patented a robotic device that would create self-driving shopping carts, giving customers free hands while they shop. While that might benefit shoppers, the robot could lead to cutbacks in staff if it lives up to the potential highlighted in the patent, ranging from retrieving containers and abandoned items to helping with stocking and checking inventory.

A wave of automation is predicted to  take 5.1 million jobs away from humans over the next five years, with low-paying, low-skill jobs considered those most at risk (even pizzerias may see more robots and fewer cooks in their kitchens). Walmart has always had a strained relationship with labor, ranging from pushing back against labor unions to coming under fire for what customers have complained are understaffed stores.

During the past two years, Walmart has invested $2.7 billion in education, training and higher wages, with about $1.5 billion of that investment coming in the current fiscal year, a spokesman said.

Robots could prove an answer to Walmart’s labor headaches.

“In the modern retail store environment, there is a need to improve the customer experience and/or convenience for the customer,” the patent said. “Customers often require assistance that employees of the store are not always able to provide.”

Also according to the patent: “Due to high employee turnover rates, available employees may not be fully trained or have access to information to adequately support customers.”

United States Patent and Trademark Office

Abandoned shopping carts, messy aisles, misplaced inventory and improper shelf prices are among the issues the patent highlighted.

Robo-carts could be summoned by customers, respond to voice commands and use scanners to notice inventory issues. The system uses a number of small “motorized transport units” that would connect to the bottom of carts, as well as a central computer, video cameras, Wi-Fi and other components.

Walmart said robo-carts are part of its ongoing efforts to improve customer service. “As the retail landscape continues to evolve, we want to be able to serve customers when and how they want to shop. That means testing new and innovative ways to serve the customer, which we’ve done through different initiatives like our grocery pickup service,” the company said in a statement. 

It continued: “And while it’s too early to determine how we would even potentially use this technology, our goal always is to find ways to help simplify processes to help our associates better serve our customers as they will continue to play a critical role in the success of our business.”

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