Walking up and down aisles of a retail store, scanning row after row of products to help keep track of inventory is one of the most tedious and time-consuming tasks store employees endure, and most dread the assignment. This is especially true for a company like Wal-Mart Stores (NYSE:WMT), which can have as many as 200,000 products lining its shelves.
The cost of not completing this monotonous chore can be high. Every out-of-stock item can result in a lost sale for the retailer. This is particularly critical as brick-and-mortar stores contend with the rise of online shopping from the likes of Amazon.com (NASDAQ:AMZN).
Wal-Mart believes it has found a solution for the problem, using an autonomous robot built by start-up Bossa Nova that is infused with artificial intelligence (AI).
The robot, which stands just 2 feet tall, comes with an extendable tower that can climb to over six feet, piloting itself down aisles and capturing digital images of store shelves. The robot can complete a review of an 80-foot section in just two minutes and identify items that are out-of-stock, recognize incorrect prices, and spot shelves with missing labels. The device can also record two terabytes of data in the process of scanning a 100,000-square-foot retail store.
The robot uses AI to analyze the raw data and to calculate the status of each product on the shelves, including its location, price, and availability. This information is then given to Wal-Mart employees to take the necessary next steps.
"Access to data is the foundation of a truly seamless omni-channel retail business," said Martin Hitch, chief business officer at Bossa Nova. "Our solution provides visibility into on-shelf inventory and helps the retailers improve store operations to better serve their customers, whether in-store or for online pickup. Wal-Mart is retail's innovation leader and we're excited to be a part of their advanced technology initiative."
Wal-Mart's chief technology officer, Jeremy King, points out that this is a task humans aren't very efficient at doing. "If you are running up and down the aisle and you want to decide if we are out of Cheerios or not, a human doesn't do that job very well, and they don't like it," he said. The robots are 50% more productive at scanning shelves and can complete the task three times faster than employees, while being much more accurate. Currently, associates can only scan store shelves twice per week.
After limited tests at a small number of stores in Arkansas, Pennsylvania, and California, Wal-Mart is expanding the assessment to an additional 50 locations. The company said that feedback from customers and store associates will help inform its decisions about where and when to deploy its robotic helpers.
If you can't beat 'em, join 'em
Wal-Mart isn't the first retailer to employ robotics to improve and enhance its operations. E-commerce leader Amazon paid $775 million in 2012 to acquire Kiva Systems, the company that supplied the robotics used in Amazon's massive fulfillment centers. The squat, orange robots navigate about the company's shipping centers lifting the selected inventory shelf and bringing it to a human picker, speeding the process of packing items for shipment.
Willingness to test new strategies and technologies such as these will be key to Wal-Mart's ability to compete going forward. A novel solution to an ongoing problem won't solve all of the company's problems, but it is one more piece in a growing arsenal of information the company can use to succeed.
John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, an Amazon subsidiary, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Danny Vena owns shares of Amazon. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Amazon. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.