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Walmart Testing Robots for Detecting Out-of-Stocks

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is testing a new robot that scans shelves for out-of-stocks, incorrect prices, and wrong or missing labels in a small number of its stores.

The new shelf-scanning technology is intended to free up floor-level associates’ time to focus more on doing what machines typically can't do as well as humans: better serve customers and sell merchandise. Stores currently testing the technology are in Arkansas, Pennsylvania and California.

Based on the initial tests, Walmart plans to expand the robots to an additional 50 locations. As with anything introduced to stores, associate and customer feedback will guide how and where the mega-retailer will use the technology down the line.

“This combination of people and technology is helping make our stores more convenient and easier to shop, ensuring that products are available when our customers want them,” the Bentonville, Ark.-based company said in a blog entry. “It’s just another example of how we’re using technology to save our associates and customers time.”

In an interview with Reuters, Jeremy King, chief technology officer for Walmart U.S. and ecommerce, said that the robots are 50 percent more productive than their human counterparts and can scan shelves significantly more accurately and three times faster. Store employees typically have time to scan shelves only twice a week. Despite their greater efficiency, the robots won't replace workers or affect employee headcounts in stores.

Walmart's new test is similar to one by Midwestern grocer Schnucks, which is testing Simbe Robotics' Tally robot to audit shelves for out-of-stocks, low-stocks, misplaced items and pricing errors.

The technology is similar to other robots currently being tested by grocers in different markets. Minneapolis-based Target Corp. first announced its initiative to test Simbe Robotics' shelf-scanning robot, named Tally, in stores last year. Moreover, Midwestern grocer Schnuck Markets, based in St. Louis, recently revealed its incorporation of Tally at several locations, while Carlisle, Pa.-based Ahold USA, at a Giant Food Stores location, just began testing Marty, a robot with the same purpose that also detects floor hazards – and sports a pair of plastic googly eyes to make it more customer-friendly.

The robots mark another recent initiative by Walmart to add automation to its stores. Among them is the growing number of stores with self-service “Pickup Towers,” from which customers can get orders online; the expansion of Scan & Go checkout-free technology that puts “the checkout process in the hands of the user”; and the rollout of its Express Lane to digitize money and pharmacy services across stores nationwide.

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