Walmart Gives Up On Stock-Checking Robots

We’ve seen the Jetsons, Star Wars, and Silent Running. In the future, all the menial jobs will be done by robots. But Walmart is reversing plans to have six-foot-tall robots scan store shelves to check stock levels. The robots, from a company called Bossa Nova Robotics, apparently worked well enough and Walmart had promoted the idea in many investor-related events, promising that robot workers would reduce labor costs while better stock levels would increase sales. So why did the retail giant say no to these ‘droids? Apparently, they found better ways to check stock and, according to a quote in the Wall Street Journal’s article about the decision, shoppers reacted negatively to sharing the aisle with the roving machines.

The robots didn’t just check stock. They could also check prices and find misplaced items. You can see a promotional video about the device below.

We have to wonder what this means for robots in general. People like us — Hackaday readers — tend to embrace new technology and we are more likely to follow a robot like this around trying to understand its operation. But we aren’t the majority. Are people afraid for their jobs? Being injured by a runaway machine? A robot uprising?

On the other hand, Walmart continues to use other robots. Notably, I’ve noticed QR-like barcodes that the floor mopper machines use to locate themselves. They also use less mobile robots like cash counters. However, the floor moppers aren’t rolling around during prime shopping hours.

We figure Bossa Nova still has a play. There are plenty of warehouses and maybe even warehouse stores where a machine rolling down an aisle wouldn’t warrant a second look. But if Walmart is afraid to expose customers to the device, we doubt many other retailers will for awhile. Unless there’s something about the demographic. Would people shopping in Home Depot be less worried about a machine? We don’t know.

We also have to wonder what this means for other working robots. We’ve seen robots preparing fast food and driving your car, for example. People are spending a lot of time thinking about how robots will work with coworkers. Maybe they need to also factor in how customers will react to being served by robots or even just sharing space with them.

What do you think? Will it bother you to see a robot taxi drive pass you on the freeway while you eat your robotically-prepared hamburger? Or do you think those who oppose are just modern-day Luddites?

37 thoughts on “Walmart Gives Up On Stock-Checking Robots

  1. My bet is they will just install more ceiling video cameras to scan the isles. Totally non-invasive, already present in stores. A little vision recognition and shallower shelves would make whole store inventory checks virtually instantaneous. If a Tesla can monitor 6 cameras 100 times a second, you could monitor 600 cameras in one second. This is the approach that Amazon is working on.

      1. I used to work at a massive wine and beer store, the rfid’s were good enough to read MOST of the product as it came off of the truck. However, they didn’t rfid each wine cork or whatever, i’m pretty sure it was just one per case. We still verified the product against the manifest to ensure it was working properly because it didn’t always work.

        I am also not a fan of everything I buy, use, or own having an rfid simply for the privacy and tracking implications. It’s already enough of a pain in the a$$ to have to blow all the spyware out of my phone, let alone being forced to have an emp box to blow the rfid’s out of all of my products.

        FWIW, I think that they already have RFID’s implanted in the stocks/plastics of every single new manufactured firearm. Another good reason to buy used/older guns.

        The ones in credit cards are sort of tricky. I don’t know if this STILL works today but I used to have an nokia n800 which was a sort of first of it’s kind pocket tablet with a linux distro called maemo on it. For an extra 15 bucks you had a dongle and you could read all the credit card data (cept the 3 digit number printed on the back) from up to 40 feet away. in reality, you had to get quite a bit closer than that. But for under 250 bucks, you could literally sit anywhere in public and a device in your pocket could soak up all of the credit card (and now license) data from anyone in that radius. I have no doubt in my mind that there are organizations out there using this kind of thing for nefarious purposes. Literally every store has giant rfid readers in front of the exits, not only can they fingerprint you, they can steal and store your credit card information and the fingerprints of your concealed weapons, and any other device you have that’s worth sticking a tag in. I don’t doubt the government does this as well, considering their policies on invasive cell phone hacking and sweeping warrantless wiretaps, etc.

        Literally just hire someone that’s slightly on the spectrum to organize and catalog the data using more traditional methods, the robots and rfid’s won’t align the product on the shelf and can’t answer customer questions.

        FWIW, other companies have already solved this problem using some cheap guns and QR codes (which they probably already use in their distribution centers). wal-fart has the power to literally put it’s partners out of business because of it’s shady practices and purchasing power, i’m sure it wouldn’t take that much convincing to ask them to put a qr code on the front of the package, cheaper, more effective, can be verified by human means, etc, etc.

        When they finally DO start using robots, I wonder how long it will take before they are covered with things like gum, band-aids and used tampons. Having worked where the public has access, finding bodily fluids and other disgusting human byproducts is a surprisingly regular occurrence. I have no doubt in my mind that a robot would just be a rolling target for this sort of vandalism, and they’d have to hire someone to scrape the literal boogers off of the sensors.

        1. “Literally just hire someone that’s slightly on the spectrum to organize and catalog the data using more traditional methods,”

          Once when I was unemployed, I spend several hours one afternoon in the local Goodwill arranging books by topic (cooking, school texts & subjects, biographies, romances, non-fiction). A week later I stopped in, and an employee was re-arranging the books by size!

      1. You have to account for shrink and items damaged by customers but left on the sales floor. If it was just scan in and deduct what you sold merchandise would be a lot cheaper.

    1. The problem is the procedural presence of the robot. A local supermarket uses one of these and it does it’s best to get out of your way only to further impede you. In my experience a robot with slow or impaired decision making usually results in a battered robot. I will surely muscle my way around it because I, of course, have the right of way. Recent COVID induced indoctrination of one-way aisles provide additional maneuvering/avoidance difficulties with the machine moving much slower than a typical patron. Furthering frustration levels.

      The store managers should also employ a better strategy with the timing of use. By evaluating the patron occupancy and restricting deployment times. The store won’t roll a pallet of canned beans down the aisle when it is really crowded, so why is the robot there? When the occupancy increases we know the shelves will empty, but is this the right time to deploy this lumbering behemoth?

      A combination of Smart shelves and buggies with RFID concentrators/readers, would aid in counting the removal of items from the shelf, but also provide checkout/payment and product presence awareness. Walking by a spill or misplaced product in aisle 5 is identifiable by an out of place RFID tag crowd sourced from both mobile buggies and the offended shelves announcing the presence of interlopers from the neighboring aisles.

      1. Around here most stores have removed the one way signs on the floors because people just didn’t give a shit, especially when what they wanted was less than halfway down the “wrong” way.

  2. Given how Wal-Mart treats its workers, with even discussion of unionization being a terminable offense, I would wager that most likely, they realized that hiring another person or two at bare-minimum wage to do nothing but do shelf sweeps would still wind up being cheaper than the robots.

      1. Americans are not excessively litigious. Stop repeating this pushed-by-corporations nonsense.

        The whole point of the civil legal system is to settle disagreements that involve harm that isn’t criminal.

        One of the requirements of lawsuit is that you have to show the judge proof you attempted to work things out with the person you’re suing. Even if you do the judge still sometimes orders both parties to seek more formal arbitration before allowing the suit. Plenty of cases the judge says “guys this REALLY is something that you two should be able to work out, don’t waste my time unless you actually give it a go.”

        Corporate interests have been pushing the myth that we’re “overly litigious” because the civil courts are one of the last places they can be held accountable because they can’t pay off a jury like they can congressional reps and political parties. So instead they’ve been waging a decades long PR campaign trying to slowly convince the public that there are too many of those pesky frivolous civil lawsuits (and that payouts are too high.

        The classic example is the multi-million-dollar McDonalds hot coffee lawsuit. What nobody talks about: she was severely burned, McD’s had been warned many times they were serving coffee too hot, the temp was way above the rest of the industry…and all she asked for were her medical expenses for burns to her genitals, NOTHING ELSE. She didn’t ask for a dime in punitive damages. The sum was low to mid five figures. McDs refused, forcing her to sue.

        The jury saw not just that McDs was willfully endangering people, but that it had turned down a reasonable request for damages. It was reprehensible behavior and that’s what earned them the jury’s wrath, and a large punitive punishment. And the punishment wasn’t just for her – it was basically for everyone they’ endangered with their asinine and largely pointless temperature policy.

      2. “…how litigious Americans are…”

        Americans aren’t more litigious than any other people. The problem in America is (1) a greedy and corrupt organization called the Trial Lawyers of America, and (2) the legal system does not hold those bringing failed law suits for frivolous and/or dishonest reasons accountable. In most cases the law suits never even go to trial. For example: A greedy Trial Lawyer airs endless TV commercials telling you he will get you money if you claim you have stubbed your toe on a Walmart robot. You can be sure millions of “Victims” are going to call that greedy Trial Lawyer whether they’ve actually stubbed their toe on a Walmart robot, or not. Then once Walmart faces a class action law suit with millions of stubbed toe “Victims”, they will decide it is cheaper and less damaging to their reputation to settle out of court and bury the whole thing under a blanket nondisclosure agreement. Each “Victim” gets awarded $20 but only gets $10 because the greedy Trial Lawyer takes the other $10 as his “fee” – many millions of times over! Walmart and every other store stops using the robots out of fear of endless class action suits. The robot manufacturer is forced out of business and all of its employees end up on unemployment insurance. The greedy Trial Lawyer gleefully trots off to the bank with his newly “earned” tens or hundreds of millions in “fees”!

    1. A robot costs thousands of dollars to buy and depreciates very quickly, people can be hired and fired for nothing, and paid almost as little. In many ways meat is still cheaper in the long run than metal.

  3. Ive never been in a wallmart store and if any of the photos Ive seen on the internet are anything to go by Im sure there would be something about issues with the demographic of the patrons that would not sit well with the robot workers….

  4. “We have to wonder what this means for robots in general… ”

    …and…

    “…they found better ways to check stock and…shoppers reacted negatively to sharing the aisle with the roving machines.”

    There’s your answer: robots must be more effective, less obstructive (physically and psychologically), and more profitable than competing solutions. This is true for *any* change in business processes. Walmart isn’t afraid, they’re a paragon of cost/benefit optimization; they’re running live A/B tests on new technologies and those technologies are not succeeding…yet.

    “People like us […] embrace new technology and we are more likely to follow a robot like this around trying to understand its operation.”

    …which makes us (statistically infrequent) obstacles to this particular process, a bit of sand in the gear train; we stop shopping and get in the way of the process tools. Walmart doesn’t want that in the same way that the highway department doesn’t want us blocking traffic so we can watch the new road-laying equipment work. The ideal servant is both silent and invisible in their efforts, offering neither distraction nor obstacle to the activities of those they serve.

    As for the question of Luddites and fear, they aren’t wrong. Every job a robot does is a job a human used to do, from stocking to cooking to driving to welding, ad infinitum. Every job a robot does is a lost opportunity for a human to earn a living, however modest. These concerns are real and valid, not least because we keep making more humans who very much need to be able to eat food and live safely indoors. We who avidly embrace new technology sometimes forget that survival – much less well-being – is a non-trivial issue for a substantial number of our neighbors, many of whom lack the advantages that we were gifted by fiat of structure or happenstance. If we are to truthfully call ourselves moral contributors, we are obligated to keep that front-of-mind, that the solutions we enthusiastically devise are net positive for as much of the population as possible.

    1. You can’t make an entire industry work by using common sense. I was under the impression retail was harvesting data from the registers already, and for some time, where empty shelves or a product or two being out of stock was due to shipping conflicts or perhaps whatever factory inventories being down. It is comical to think it an effect of poor inventory procedures.

  5. ” People like us — Hackaday readers — tend to embrace new technology”

    I would argue you will not find 100% acceptance among hackaday readers on this. I personally get really annoyed with how sensitive these damn things are. Modern robots are still some of the most fragile butterflies that cost a million dollars and while they work great in a warehouse around your average customer they are just annoying. Do you have any of these items: Chain, black towel, mirror, polycarb, a thin rope tied to something. Well congrats the robot is utterly devistated and now I as the customer have to deal with walking around this 6′ idiot who can’t fix himself and makes the double wide mobility scooter look slim. I have some pretty narrow isles in some of my stores, if I couldn’t get a cart down the isle because the robot is busy getting stuck on a can of beans I would be pretty pissed off.

  6. This is a misleading headline that follows a lot of repeatage in the tech press – see the original link to WSJ [paywall, sorry] below.

    In general, people seem to think that the competition is between robots and already-employed workers. It isn’t – WalMart and others employ contracted third-part teams of inventory management employees who show up by the vanload and sweep stores by hand. This particular move, however, is using store employees that are already sweeping the stores picking online orders as a result of COVID shopping and having them do the inventory analysis as they go.

    https://www.wsj.com/articles/walmart-shelves-plan-to-have-robots-scan-shelves-11604345341

    Non-paywall synopsis (strange formatting) here: https://headtopics.com/us/wsj-news-exclusive-walmart-scraps-plan-to-have-robots-scan-shelves-16627133

  7. Not a great revolution or repudiation of any technology, they’re just having the employees that are doing the online shopping order-picking do the scan instead.

    Find the original WSJ article for more – link won’t go through HAD’s filter.

  8. The reality is that they already know stock on hand. They receive what they need, pretty much daily, on pallets, ready to go to the proper isles. They scan the items on the pallets, as they come off the truck, before going out to be stocked. The know the inventory, from the sales at the register. Supposedly, damages are scanned, and removed from the computer’s inventory. Any differences would be theft or misplaced items. Profit margin is so different between store brand, and name brand, usually the same product anyway, just a different label. Lot of shoppers aren’t that brand loyal. If they can’t get their usual, likely to buy something similar. Doesn’t make sense to make a separate trip, or do without.

    Stock checking robots are expensive ‘toys’, they really should even need. My guess would be people would be concerned about being spied on while shopping, and employs, more concerned about getting caught, not performing well. They already have cameras everywhere, a roving camera is a little much. Shoplifters would probably vandalize them, or cover the cameras, requiring an employee to chase it down, and resolve the issue.

    1. You underestimate shrinkage. Last year an estimated $62 billion was stolen in the US. 70% of stores surveyed had a higher than 1% loss rate. I’ve seen stores with a loss rate higher than 5% and some with double digits for a certain categories.

      Profit margins are ever shrinking, so stock must be kept at a minimum. This means any unaccounted product loss can throw a wrench into keeping the shelves properly stocked very quickly.

  9. Just let the robots loose when the store is closed/4am when there is no/little customers in the store.
    The whole point of robots is that they do their job autonomously so minimum human interaction is a good thing.

    But also, the scanning in products/scanning out in the cash register + add a typical shrinkage of that product, then you got a close enough warning when something gets low in stock and can send a human to refill the shelf if needed.

    If the human scans the remaining stock on shelf, compares it to the number sold a computer will eventually learn how many of the items gets stolen on average, and can fine tune the algorithm to a point where it is almost perfect.

    AA batterys was one of the most stolen items, until rechargable MP3 players and phones replaced the walkmans/Discmans, now it is apparently razors and perfumes/makeup, high value, small size is what gets stolen.

    We used to sell 2 different brands of batterys, the more expensive/better ones was in a big clamshell pack, the cheaper ones was just shrink-wrapped to a pack, the cheaper one got stolen, the expensive ones not…

    It”s not good for the enviroment, but exessive packing (clamshells that needs tools to be opened) is a good theft deterrant

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