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Walmart deploying robots to scan Florida store shelves

Walmart leader chats about the chain's latest innovations in retail tech, including its new autonomous scanners.
Walmart’s new autonomous scanners roam the aisles to take stock and check prices, rather than have a manager do the task manually.
Walmart’s new autonomous scanners roam the aisles to take stock and check prices, rather than have a manager do the task manually.
Published Feb. 11

Tampa Bay Walmarts may soon have a new tool on its sales floors: little robots that roam the aisles looking for empty spots on shelves and sale prices that need updating.

The robots — the mega-chain prefers to call them "autonomous scanners" — have been deployed in Jacksonville to alert employees about items that need to be restocked. Walmart director of corporate communications Phillip Keene said that after successful trials, the chain plans to deploys the scanners soon to a store near you.

With the rise of e-commerce, a competitive retail market and budding technology, Walmart and its competitors are unrolling an array of gadgets and systems that feel futuristic.

"We continue to be intentional about finding new ways to save customers' time and money," said Keene. "We're tried and true on saving money."

But saving time? That's where a lot of the tech tools come in — innovations Keene said Walmart has been "ratcheting up the last several years."

And America's largest retail chain and grocer is likely feeling the pressure to keep things modern. Kroger, the country's second largest grocer, has been testing smart shelves that replace paper price labels with digital screens.

But without any Kroger-owned supermarkets in Florida, it's likely most Sunshine State shoppers will see their first glimpses of a more tech-savvy shopping experience inside the aisles of Walmart and competitor Target.

Both retailers have recently launched ways for shoppers to check out without having to wait in line. Roaming employees equipped with mobile devices — similar to what is used by Apple store employees — can check out shoppers with one or a few items. In Walmart, they wear yellow sashes that say, "Check out with me."

"The talk, historically, has been, 'Oh, the lines at Walmart,'" Keene said. "But if you're coming in for screws and duct tape, you're able to get with that associate standing in the aisle and you're on your way out."

Walmart also launched app updates, like ones that have exact maps of every individual store to make it easier for shoppers to find any item on their list. But Keene admits, the coolest thing the chain has launched recently is the autonomous scanners.

The robots — not quite R2D2, but more like rectangle boxes on wheels — travel the aisles to scan inventory with a long arm that extends to the heights of the shelves. It takes in prices and the number of items available. That's a job managers usually have to do with handheld scanners.

Rather than use the manager's time, Keene said, the robot is able go down each aisle to take stock and then spit out a report. The manager knows instantly which items need to be restocked or if a sale price wasn't updated.

"It frees (managers) up for customer interaction on the sales floor," Keene said.

He acknowledges the commonly heard critique: that tech is taking away jobs from people. But he said in the case of the scanner, it's not removing a job but taking a mundane and time consuming task off the plate of workers and giving them more time to be face-to-face with customers.

Retailers have been paying more and more attention to that customer-facing experience to keep shoppers happy in stores. Amazon is still king online, where it attracts close to half of all U.S. online orders.

"There's still a lot of people who like to come into a store and shop," said Keene, "who want to touch it, feel it, and like the ambiance and interaction."

Walmart has grown its online inventory to compete with Amazon and perfect its omnichannel experience, how its in-store and online experiences work together. Retailers are increasingly moving away from the idea that clicks matter more than bricks that frame their in-person storefronts. Rather, chains such as Walmart, are banking on the importance of embracing both and figuring out how to mesh them together.

"I think when we look back as company 10 or 15 years from now, we'll see this as a huge transformation period," Keene said.

Contact Sara DiNatale at sdinatale@tampabay.com. Follow @sara_dinatale.

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