Walmart (WMT), the largest private employer in the U.S., will inevitably see technology infiltrate certain jobs as human workers re-skill for more complex roles in the quickly changing retail environment, a top executive told Yahoo Finance.
As the debate deepens over which jobs automation will take over — and how human workers will deal with the fallout— Walmart U.S. CEO Greg Foran likened Walmart to automotive pioneer Henry Ford.
When Ford began, “there were a lot of people who were wondering about what was going to happen with horses. And the reality is that over time, things do change,” Foran told Yahoo Finance, ahead of the retailer’s shareholder meeting at its Arkansas headquarters.
“Over time, technology is going to allow us to do some jobs in a store that previously we used to have people to do,” the executive said.
Foran, who's worked in retail since he was a teenager, pointed to labeling shelves as one part of the job of a retail worker that's evolved over the years.
"[When] I first started in retail, we didn't even have computers. So we used to handwrite the shelf labels,” Foran said.
And when I talk to people in our business now about the fact that I used to have to handwrite shelf labels, they look at me like I'm from a different planet," he added.
Foran noted that a nearby Walmart store is using electronic shelf labels, and that could soon be the case across the stores.
"And I'm guessing that probably in the next three to four years every Walmart will have electronic shelf labels and they will be simply changed with the touch of a button out in the back office. So change is something that we've got to do. You've got to get used to,” he said.
‘Becoming more complex’
Lately, Walmart has embraced new technologies like robots to complete more mundane tasks within its fleet of U.S. stores, freeing up its associates to do more specialized work.
This year, Walmart will deploy 1,500 new autonomous floor cleaners, called the "Auto-C," as well as 300 more shelf scanners dubbed the "Auto-S.”
Also, 1,200 more FAST Unloaders will automatically scan and sort items from trucks, while 900 more pickup towers are expected to retrieve customers’ online orders.
It’s part of Walmart’s effort to simplify parts of its operations, even as Foran explained that “there are other aspects that are becoming more complex.”
One area that's becoming more complex is online grocery pickup and delivery, an offering Walmart has expanded aggressively in recent years.
"Here we are, a business that serves 160 million Americans a week, is now rolling out a service that personally shops for you,” Foran told Yahoo Finance. “So sort of what goes down goes up somewhere else. Our ability to manage that transition is critical."
Walmart has added 35,000 new roles that didn't exist two years ago, including personal shoppers for online grocery pickup and delivery. Those personal shoppers go through three weeks of intensive training to learn how to pick the best product and make smart substitutions where needed.
Training has become an integral part of how Walmart operates its business as the roles of associates evolve.
Three years ago, Walmart launched its in-house training program called the Walmart Academy. The free academies, located in the back of about 200 stores, teach associates customer service techniques, retail math, and how to use new technology, among other skills.
Since inception, more than 800,000 associates completed training, including 450,000 in last year alone.
For many of the associates, the Academy is the first time they've been in a classroom since leaving high school. For some, it’s the first time they've been part of a graduation ceremony.
"[They've] learned something really meaningful — new technology that's going to help them whether they stay with Walmart or they don't. I think that's a special thing," Foran said.
Watch the full interview below.
Julia La Roche is a finance reporter at Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter.