Both Walmart and Ahold Delhaize expanded their use of robots this year. However, according to two big news stories in less than a week, their entry into the workforce is off to a rocky start. Is the grocery industry in for a robo-backlash, and what that will mean for the automation in that sector?
In theory, robots are supposed to take over the manual and repetitive tasks, like taking inventory, scrubbing floors or spotting spills and messes. This, in turn, frees up humans for higher-level tasks and the time to engage in more customer service. To this end, in January, Ahold Delhaize ordered 500 Marty robots for its GIANT/MARTIN’S and Stop & Shop stores, and in April, Walmart expanded its use of in-store robots to 1,500 locations. But at least initially, the theory of robots being efficient helpers is running into some harsh realities.
Last Thursday, The Washington Post ran the story “As Walmart turns to robots, it’s the human workers who feel like machines.” In it, The Post chronicled some of the issues the bots have been having in stores including breaking down, functioning erratically, freaking out shoppers and frustrating employees. As The Post writes, it seems like robots are creating the very problem they are supposed to be fixing:
But the rise of the machines has had an unexpected side effect: Their jobs, some workers said, have never felt more robotic. By incentivizing hyper-efficiency, the machines have deprived the employees of tasks they used to find enjoyable. Some also feel like their most important assignment now is to train and babysit their often inscrutable robot colleagues.
Then today, less than a week after The Post story, comes a story from The New Food Economy titled “Stop & Shop now has big, goofy-looking robots patrolling its aisles. What, exactly, is the goal?” It too, talked of its “Marty” robots malfunctioning, having limited functionality to begin with (something we noted at the time of the announcement), and creeping out customers (perhaps because Stop & Shop gave the robots giant googly eyes).
Some of these potential missteps in implementing robots could be because we are still in version 1.0 of this automation experiment, and there seems to be a mismatch between the customer expectations, robot design, and the tasks being handed over to robots.
The robots being used in the front of store (fulfillment robots in the back of house are a different story) are industrial looking. They are tall, cold and utilitarian in design, and move about in a very, well, robotic manner. Shoppers aren’t used to sharing aisles with an indifferent machine that is beaming a light to scan shelves for missing inventory or just watching the floor (with giant googly eyes) to see if anyone has made a mess. The Marty robot, we should note, doesn’t clean up any mess; it just stops and points them out for humans to deal with.
One has to wonder just how long-term these problems with robots will be. There’s a raft of startups looking to retrofit stores with banks of high-tech cameras in the ceiling to facilitate cashierless checkout. These cameras, aided by computer vision and machine learning, could easily take over spotting empty shelves and alerting staff about spills without the need for a robot roving the store. Walmart already debuted this type of invisible inventory management at its IRL store in NY in April.
This eye in the sky approach alleviates any creepy factor associated with bumping into a giant robot as you pick out a pint of Ben & Jerry’s, but it also has you shopping in a surveillance supermarket. As for employee issues, this is why Albertsons brings labor unions to the table at the very start of any automation discussion.
In addition to this being a story about busted robots, this is also a story about change. As the saying goes, the only thing people hate more than change is things staying the same. The way we shop for groceries is undergoing and will continue to undergo big changes in the coming year. Robots will be a part of that, and there will be problems that arise. It will be up to the retailers to figure out the right balance to avoid a robot-driven backlash.