After touting their efficiency and effectiveness for years, Walmart has decided to stop using Bossa Nova’a autonomous shelf-scanning robots to monitor inventory, according to a scoop in today’s Wall Street Journal.
Almost exactly three years ago, Walmart announced it was deploying Bossa Nova’s ‘bots to 50 stores. At that time, the company hailed the robots’ efficiency, saying the machines were 50 percent more productive and three times faster than a human at the job of taking inventory. In April of 2019, Walmart announced it was broadening Bossa Nova’s use to 300 locations, and just in January of this year, Walmart bumped the deployment number up to 1,000 stores.
Of course, shortly after that January announcement, the pandemic hit, which precipitated a massive surge in online grocery shopping. And this seems to have had an unintended consequence when it comes to automation, writes the Journal:
Walmart ended the partnership because it found different, sometimes simpler solutions that proved just as useful, said people familiar with the situation. As more shoppers flock to online delivery and pickup because of Covid-19 concerns, Walmart has more workers walking the aisles frequently to collect online orders, gleaning new data on inventory problems, said some of these people. The retailer is pursuing ways to use those workers to monitor product amounts and locations, as well as other automation technology, according to the people familiar with the situation.
Additionally, the Journal reported, Walmart was concerned with how shoppers were reacting to seeing the six-foot tall robots roaming the aisles.
The pitch from Bossa Nova and other players like Simbe Robotics and Badger Technologies is that shelf-scanning robots can provide a more accurate and up-to-date accounting of inventory on store shelves. As the CEO of Simbe Robotics told me in August, better data about what’s in stock can alleviate product outages like those experienced during the panic buying early on in the pandemic.
At the same time Walmart is retreating on shelf-scanning robots, other retailers are increasing their use. Schnuck Markets is expanding the use of Simbe’s Tally robot to 62 locations across the Midwest. And Woodman’s Market in Wisconsin will add Badger Technologies’ shelf scanning robot to all of its 18 stores and Illinois and Wisconsin by the end of this year.
For all their advantages, robots were always kind of a stopgap technology for grocers. Robots still need time to go up and down store aisles, and as noted above, interact with human shoppers. Cameras, sensors and the burgeoning world of cashierless checkout technology can do much the same in real time (or near real time) without intruding on a shoppers’ space.
Walmart debuted its IRL store last year that uses cameras and computer vision to monitor inventory. Trax installs cameras on ceilings and store shelves to do much the same. And lineless checkout companies like Grabango monitor what people are taking from store shelves and charging them automatically as they leave the store.
The Journal reports that Bossa Nova, which has raised more than $100 million in funding, laid off 50 percent of its staff after the Walmart contract was terminated.
We have reached out to both Walmart and Bossa Nova and will update as we hear back.
UPDATE: A Walmart rep sent us the following statement via email:
We’ve worked with Bossa Nova for five years and together we learned a lot about how technology can assist associates, make jobs easier and provide a better customer experience. This was one idea we tried in roughly 500 stores just as we are trying other ideas in additional stores. We will continue testing new technologies and investing in our own processes and apps to best understand and track our inventory and help move products to our shelves as quickly as we can.
SECOND UPDATE: We received the following statement from Bossa Nova CEO Sarjoun Skaff via email:
“I cannot comment on Walmart, however the pandemic has forced us to streamline our operations and focus on our core technologies. We have made stunning advances in AI and robotics. Our retail AI is the industry’s best and works as well on robots as with fixed cameras, and our hardware, autonomy and operations excelled in more than 500 of the world’s most challenging stores. With the board’s full support, we continue deploying this technology with our partners in retail and in other fields.”