Robots show up in Delaware’s Walmarts

An autonomous floor cleaning robot known as an Auto-C can be programmed to travel through Walmart stores and leave behind a clean, polished floor. According to the company, they’ve introduced this type of robot at their Middletown, Camden and Milford stores. More will be coming to the state in 2020. (Photo courtesy of Walmart)

MILFORD — Over the past month, Delaware Walmart shoppers may have caught a rather surprising glimpse of a floor scrubbing machine driving itself up and down the aisles.

In July, the Camden, Milford and Middletown Walmart stores all got autonomous floor cleaners, or “Auto-C,” as they are known.

According to Walmart spokesman Ragan Dickens, these are just the most recent robots the retail giant has introduced in its stores in the state. Walmart began testing several types of robots in their stores across the country in 2018.

After encouraging results, they’ve begun a more thorough rollout in 2019 of four distinct types:

•Auto-C: After an associate preps an area, this machine can be programmed to travel throughout the open parts of the store, leaving behind a clean, polished floor.

•Auto-S or shelf scanner: this technology scans items on store shelves to help ensure availability, correct shelf location and price accuracy.

•FAST Unloaders: Working with the shelf scanner, the FAST Unloader automatically scans and sorts items unloaded from trucks based on priority and department. This allows associates to move inventory from the back room to the sales floor more quickly.

•Pickup Towers: When a customer places an order online and selects for an in-store pickup, an associate loads the ordered item into the Pickup Tower. When a customer receives a notification via email that the item is available, they can use the Pickup Tower like a vending machine to retrieve their purchase.

Mr. Dickens says, so far, the Milford Walmart is their most robot-equipped store among the nine they have in the state.

“In July, the Camden, Milford and Middletown stores got Auto-Cs,” he said. “Georgetown and Milford both have Pickup Towers. Milford, Middletown and Seaford have FAST Unloaders. None of the stores in Delaware have the shelf scanners just yet.”

Walmart will continue to ship the robots to their stores throughout the remainder of the year with more likely to come to Delaware.

“Nationally, we’ll be rolling out 350 shelf scanners by the end of the calendar year,” said Mr. Dickens. “We’ll have about 1,700 of the floor cleaners and FAST Unloaders out by then and about 1,000 Pickup Towers dispersed all across the United States as well. Another store in Delaware is scheduled to get a floor cleaner in early 2020.”

Why robots?

According to Mr. Dickens, the primary functions of the new robots are to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of the staff at their current stores. By relegating more “mundane” tasks to the specially designed robots, employees can devote more time to face-to-face customer service, he says.

“Each one works on a particular facet of the store,” said Mr. Dickens. “Working in the back room is really hard, you have to lift a lot of heavy stuff and it can get hot — the back room position has the highest turnover of any role in Walmart. With the FAST Unloader, it makes their jobs more enjoyable because the items are coming right off the truck on a conveyor and they can get the merchandise out onto the floor quickly. They can play their own music on the machine too — it’s really neat. With the floor scrubber, a maintenance associate used to have to spend up to two hours on their shift driving it around. But now, that time is freed up to take care of the other items on their to-do lists. It used to take an associate two weeks to scan all the items in the grocery section by hand, but the shelf scanner can do it twice per day.”

To the question of robots edging out humans as employees, Mr. Dickens says they were designed to “assist associates, not replace them.”

“It makes a big difference to our associates to have something that used to take two weeks to do, get done so quickly, they have more time to complete the rest of their work,” he said. “It’s like our CEO (Doug McMillon) has said; ‘retail is changing and we’re changing with it.’ Over time, the stores will look different and you’ll start seeing these little automations in place, but you’ll also be seeing associates freed up to better serve you.”

As for the feedback so far, Mr. Dickens claims it has been both positive from employees. As for customers, he says the response has been a combination of surprise and interest, followed closely by indifference. “Both children and adults alike are usually intrigued by the concept of a robot moving through the store, like: ‘hey, what is this?” he said. “But, over time, they understand what it’s there for and it becomes second nature and they don’t even pay attention to them.”

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