The "bossanova" robot scans aisles for missing or low stocked product and sends counts to Wal-Mart employees.
The "bossanova" robot scans aisles for missing or low -stock products and sends counts to Wal-Mart employees. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

At New Braunfels’ high-tech Walmart store, a robot glided through the aisles emitting a fluorescent white light as it scanned products on the shelves, prompting double takes from passing customers.

Walmart is rolling out shelf-scanning robots, autonomous floor scrubbers, vending machines for online orders, and automatic shipment sorters in 16 area stores this year – including San Antonio locations – as part of a $265 million remodeling and update across 54 stores statewide.

The technologies are already in place at the New Braunfels store, one of the company’s first to receive the new high-tech equipment.

“The way folks shop is changing, so we need to make sure we are leading on innovation,” said Anne Hatfield, a Walmart spokeswoman.

Company officials say the devices will improve store performance, making the jobs of its employees less menial and more customer-focused. Hatfield said the automation sweeping through the retail chain’s stores this year will not replace any workers; rather, the robots are there to complement them in an evolving retail market.

Wal-Mart employees load the pickup machine the same way customers remove their items.
Wal-Mart employees work with the pickup machine. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

In the past two years, retail jobs have declined by more than 140,000, according to a recent CNBC report. The industry is one of only two that have lost jobs in that time frame, largely in light of the increasing influence e-commerce and technology now wield.

Inside the New Braunfels store, a robotic shelf scanner employees have nicknamed “Walker” ambles through the store, aisle by aisle, shining its ultra-bright LED light on the items on the shelf and checking for products that need to be restocked or labels that need to be swapped out. The robot makes three daily trips around the store for ongoing shelf maintenance. One trip around the store takes about three hours for the autonomous machine. Walmart store employees then restock the shelves or update labels based on the information the robot gathers.

A floor-scrubbing robot will make its way to most of the 16 stores receiving updated equipment and remodels. The Auto-C, or autonomous cleaner, is first controlled by a human who steers it through the store to program its path, then the robot takes over for autonomous mopping. Walmart says this frees up its employees to take care of more detailed cleaning jobs in the store. The robots have not taken the place of store employees nor have they caused positions to be eliminated, Hatfield said.

Artificial intelligence and robotics are increasingly automating jobs in manufacturing plants and warehouses, and the next wave is expected to affect the retail industry. In the past two years, retail jobs have declined by more than 140,000, according to a recent CNBC report. The industry is one of only two that have lost jobs in that time frame, largely in light of the increasing influence e-commerce and technology now wield.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the retail sales job market is expected to grow by 2 percent from 2016 to 2026, a slower-than-average clip compared to other occupational areas.

That job forecast, however, does not take into account recent disruption in the retail industry, with Amazon having taken its e-commerce dominance to brick-and-mortar stores with the 2017 purchase of Whole Foods. That acquisition has accelerated the rate at which grocery chains and department stores have rolled out new high-tech initiatives, such as autonomous delivery and smartphone-powered self-checkout.

The Center for Popular Democracy produced a report in February detailing 1,100 retail workers’ thoughts on automation.

“The majority of workers predict technology will reconfigure their job rather than completely replace it,” the report said.

Respondents in the survey said some of the most common technologies employed in the retail space include money-counting machines, self-checkout kiosks, and apps for buying goods online and picking their orders up at the store. But automation in the retail industry appears to be reaching a critical mass with national players such as Walmart investing in robots.

A shelf-scanning robot arrived at a store in Jacksonville, Florida, where Walmart employee Dreama Lovett works. So far, no one has been laid off or had their hours cut as a result of the robot coming in. Lovett sees the value the robot brings; it helps keep the shelves orderly and saves workers’ time.

But pretty soon her store will get a floor scrubber, too. She said her co-workers aren’t wanting to think about what an increasing fleet of robots will mean for them.

“They’re putting them everywhere,” Lovett said. “It’s becoming the new way. Is it going to take away jobs? Yeah, eventually, sure it is. Isn’t it the plan? Don’t you see where they can make millions if they didn’t have people they had to pay salary to? … The robots won’t cost them like we will.”

Wal-Mart Store Manager Jason Justice drives the robotic floor cleaner to its destination.
Wal-Mart Store Manager Jason Justice drives the robotic floor cleaner to its destination. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

New Braunfels Walmart store manager Jason Justice said the technology is a welcome addition for his staff.

“It’s built into the routine,” Justice said. “It’d be harder now for associates to go [back] to the old way.”

He said store employees can focus more on customer service instead of taking shelf inventory, for example. Workers who would have been manning the manual floor scrubbers can now dust shelves or clean bathrooms. That translates to a more positive customer experience, he said.

The high-tech features at the New Braunfels store don’t end with working robots. A 16-foot structure looms over customers entering the store. The so-called pickup tower stores up to 200 packages customers have ordered online. Scanning a barcode causes the tower to dispense the package into an 18-inch tray. Larger packages can be stored in one of several lockers nearby.

“When the store first got it, it was a novelty,” Justice said of the pickup tower.

The pickup tower proved especially popular during the Christmas season, he said. The store fulfills about 100 daily orders, on average, via the tower.

Another tech tool being put into use at Walmart is a handheld device that employees can use to scan any store item and complete checkout for customers. The service is called Check Out with Me and was expanded throughout the retail chain last year.

The store’s FAST unloader automatically scans and sorts items unloaded from trucks and arranges them by priority and department. The aim is to reduce the time it takes to unload a shipment and allow store employees more time on the floor with customers.

That’s all in addition to the virtual reality-powered training regimens for new employees, which help them prepare for shopping rushes during such events as Black Friday.

“Everything’s going back to making the job more efficient, so it [leads] to better customer service and availability,” Justice said. He said the workflow-improving devices have been rolled over the course of the past year and a half. The shelf-scanning robot is the latest gadget to arrive.

But for Lovett, the devices are a harbinger for economic uncertainty. In 2017, there were about 1.75 million industrial robots in operation. That number is expected to rise to 6 million by 2025, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A jobs-decimating trend Lovett saw take hold in the automotive industry is creeping into retail.

Eventually it’s going to take a lot of people’s jobs,” she said. “It’s gonna get scary. How will people survive? That’s a good question.”

San Antonio Area Walmart Stores Receiving New Technology

JJ Velasquez was a columnist, former editor and reporter at the San Antonio Report.