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Walmart doubles down on robots to shift labor costs: "We're going big"

  • Walmart said it's adding almost 4,000 robots to its stores and facilities.
  • The investment will allow human workers to shift to other tasks that are harder to automate.
  • The push into robotics comes as the company has boosted worker wages.

The robots are coming for Walmart workers' jobs, with the retail giant saying it plans to add almost 4,000 robots to its stores and facilities as it seeks to remove human workers from routine tasks like scrubbing floors. 

The company said the plan is part of a goal to shift human workers to customer-service roles, such as "engaging with customers," according to a blog post. The new robots include the "Auto-C," which polishes floors, and the FAST Unloader, which scans and sorts items unloaded from delivery trucks. 

The investment in automation comes as the retail giant has pledged to boost worker wages, pledging $2.7 billion over two years to boost pay as well as training and education. Robots, while requiring an initial investment, promise lower labor costs because they don't require benefits, while they can often perform the same job in much less time than a human worker. Walmart said the Auto-C will replace a store worker who typically spent two hours polishing floors with a scrubbing machine.

"Auto-C provides a cleaner shopping experience for our customers, and it frees up our associates to serve them better," the company said in a blog post. 

"We're going big," the company said in the post.

Floor cleaning

Comparing the robots to sidekicks like R2D2, the company framed the investment as helping workers shift into roles with fewer monotonous, repeatable tasks. Each robot can cut down hours of work done by a human into a few hours, or assign fewer humans to certain jobs, representing potential savings given the retailer's 4,600 stores, the Wall Street Journal noted. 

The company plans to add 1,500 autonomous floor cleaners, called "Auto-C," as well as 300 shelf scanners, which scans items on store shelves to make sure they are shelved and priced accurately. The other robots include 1,200 FAST Unloaders and 900 Pickup Towers, which the company said is "like a giant vending machine to retrieve" purchases for pickup.

"Our associates immediately understood the opportunity for the new technology to free them up from focusing on tasks that are repeatable, predictable and manual, "said John Crecelius, senior vice president of Central Operations for Walmart U.S. "It allows them time to focus more on selling merchandise and serving customers, which they tell us have always been the most exciting parts of working in retail."

Most notably, Amazon is known for its reliance on automation, such as the warehouse robots that transport goods for shipping to customers. 

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