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Why Walmart is adding thousands of robots to U.S. stores

"Think R2D2," Walmart wrote in a press release. Others are thinking "layoffs."

Photo credit: Rick T. Wilking / GETTY
  • Walmart plans to soon add more than 3,900 robots to stores across the U.S.
  • The robots will perform tasks such as scanning products, sorting shipments, cleaning floors, and readying online purchases for pickup.
  • Walmart says the robots will free up time for employees to help customers, while critics say its a long-term move toward replacing human workers.

Walmart is adding thousands of new robots to stores across the U.S., a move that comes as retailers struggle to attract and retain workers amid record-low unemployment rates.

The mammoth retailer plans to bring more than 3,900 robots to U.S. stores to perform a variety of "repeatable, predictable" tasks.

"Our associates immediately understood the opportunity for the new technology to free them up from focusing on tasks that are repeatable, predictable and manual," said John Crecelius, senior vice president of Central Operations for Walmart U.S., in a press release. "It allows them time to focus more on selling merchandise and serving customers, which they tell us have always been the most exciting parts of working in retail."

The new robots will include about 300 "Auto-S" shelf scanners, 1,500 "Auto-C" floor cleaners, 900 "Pickup" towers, and 1,200 "FAST Unloaders," used to help employees unload and sort products from trucks.

Walmart is framing these robots as fun, anthropomorphized sidekicks.

"Think R2D2, Optimus Prime and Robot from Lost in Space," the company wrote in a press release. "Just like Will Robinson and Luke Skywalker, having the right kind of support helps our associates succeed at their jobs."

But elsewhere, company executives have suggested the automation of certain tasks could lead to the elimination of low-rung jobs.

"As we evolve, there are certain activities, certain jobs that'll go away," Walmart US CFO Michael Dastugue said at an analyst conference in March.

In December, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union's Making Change at Walmart project released a statement alleging Walmart actively intends to cut jobs — about one per store, it estimates — with the robots.

"Make no mistake, Walmart's move to autonomous floor cleaners is not about better serving customers and workers," the statement read. "This latest job-killing venture has the potential to destroy over 5,000 maintenance jobs in the U.S. if it is implemented in every Walmart store."

Still, Walmart it's maybe no wonder Walmart is looking toward automation, considering its massive stores are expensive to operate, more people are shopping online, and the retail sector has been losing workers since 2017.

"There is a labor shortage in retail," Kirthi Kalyanam, director of the Retail Management Institute at Santa Clara University, told CNN. "It will not be easy for Walmart to add labor to perform these functions. So a high level of automation is required."

Overall, the unemployment is strikingly low — just 3.8 percent for most of March. In the short term, Walmart U.S. CFO Michael Dastugue suggested adding the robots means workers will face more role flexibility at work.

"We may need them to do them one activity in the morning and a different activity in the afternoon," he said, adding it'll force employees to "be able to handle change."

Still, it'd be a far different story if robots began to replace the bulk of U.S. cashiers, of which there are more than 3 million. Erikka Knuti, a communications director for United Food and Commercial Workers International Union communications, said it's unclear what these workers would do if not cashiering.

"Those are good jobs that can provide a person with a living and a way to provide a better living for their family," she told Forbes. "They're not going to all go to Silicon Valley and start coding, and not everybody can do warehouse work."

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