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Walmart plans to add thousands of robot helpers to U.S. stores

·Former Correspondent

The robots are coming to the world’s largest big-box retailer.

This year, Walmart (WMT) plans an aggressive expansion of technology that will automate a range of low-level tasks within its fleet of U.S. stores, freeing up its associates to do more specialized work.

The plan is to roll out 1,500 new autonomous floor cleaners, called the "Auto-C," 300 additional shelf scanners dubbed the "Auto-S.” In addition, 1,200 more FAST Unloaders will automatically scan and sort items from trucks, and 900 more pickup towers are expected to retrieve customers’ online orders.

It means that shoppers might soon encounter robots gliding up and down the retailer’s aisles, scanning for inventory, maneuvering around shelves, and scrubbing the store's expansive floor space.

Walmart has embraced new technologies like robots, in order to complete more mundane tasks normally assigned to floor workers. Meanwhile, the roles assigned to its associates are evolving in the changing retail landscape.

In particular, the rise of e-commerce has transformed the expectations of customers, shaping how the company operates inside its stores, affecting everything from inventory accuracy to the shopping experience.

Walmart’s move comes as autonomous technology is slowly infiltrating low-wage service sector jobs. However, a senior Walmart executive explained that the robots are meant to work alongside their human counterparts, as they take on different roles akin to personal shoppers for the retailer's expanding online grocery offering.

John Crecelius, senior vice president of Walmart’s U.S. central operations, told Yahoo Finance in a phone interview that the robots will operate a lot like smartphones.

"They are assistants to help you be more effective in taking care of what the customer needs to give you time to serve and sell,” he said.

A Brain Corp. autonomous floor scrubber, or Auto-C, at a Walmart store. (Photo: Walmart)
A Brain Corp. autonomous floor scrubber, or Auto-C, at a Walmart store. (Photo: Walmart)

Freed from ‘tedious’ work

For example, Walmart’s Auto-C autonomous floor cleaner is currently operating in over 200 stores. It uses autonomous technology to clean and polish floors—a task that would typically take two hours for associates to complete each day using a scrub machine.

As a result, the associate responsible for riding the scrub machine now has more time to do "more detailed cleaning," according to Crecelius.

"If you look up under one of our racks out there, you're going to find product, and you're going to find floors that need to be cleaned underneath the racks,” he said.

The additional robotic help is “allowing us to do that and restrooms, and some of the other finer details that might have taken longer to get to in the past,” Crecelius added.

Elsewhere, the Auto-S shelf scanner, currently available in around 50 stores, frees associates from the "tedious" work of going up and down aisles, scanning inventory.

"If you're standing in front of a shelf in one of our stores it's really hard to identify all the issues that need to be addressed. So doing it can be very...tedious and very challenging," Crecelius said.

Auto-S scans shelves for out-of-stock items, misplaced merchandise, and wrong or missing labels. They also provide a blueprint for associates to address different issues faster and more effectively.

"Just getting, 'Here are the things that need to be addressed' and seeing progress when you're addressing those things, feeling progress as you're addressing those things, and your customers getting the things that they need as part of their basket just feels better," the executive said.

‘180-degree shift’

Meanwhile, in the back of the store, the FAST Unloader, currently active in over 300 locations, automatically scans and sorts product unloaded from trucks based inventory needs and departments.

"For a store, the morale, the turnover, the ability to attract people to do that role it is night and day. It's a 180-degree shift," Crecelius said of the FAST Unloader.

Overall, the automated personnel are handling “very mundane and repetitive” tasks where turnover is high, Crecelius told Yahoo Finance.

“So the fact that you're putting this equipment in that takes some of that out, and makes it easier and gives you time to get back on the floor and stock,” will benefit Walmart’s human workforce, he said.

Also, the robot help has some entertainment value: It’ll play music, too.

“Some of those little things go a long way. It just makes it a lot more fun job,” Crecelius added. “It's easier for us to attract people to do the job."

Julia La Roche is a finance reporter at Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter.