What do robots mean for the future of the retail industry?

Robots to roam aisles of San Antonio Walmart stores

SAN ANTONIO – When walking the aisles of Walmarts in San Antonio, expect to see more technological innovations, such as self-scanning robots and self-floor scrubbers.

This is part of the company's $265 million investment into 54 Texas stores this year with the goal of saving customers time and money.

Some of the automated machines are already in a store in New Braunfels. One is the Bossanova, which roams the aisles of Walmart, making sure shelves are fully stocked.

About three times a day for three-hour periods, Bossanova goes down every aisle, scanning items and telling associates what needs to be restocked.

The robot can even determine if people are in the aisle and will stop scanning to not get in their way.

The goal of Bossanova is to provide quicker and better customer service.

“Before, something that may have been stocked tomorrow or later in the day now can be (stocked within) minutes of (the robot) coming in. We know, ‘Hey, this is out on the shelf.’ Someone going and bringing it out,” said Jason Justice, store manager of the Walmart in New Braunfels.

The New Braunfels Walmart is considered a technology store and it conducts trial runs for the company’s latest innovations.

Customers can expect to see Bossanova in San Antonio-area Walmart stores, along with other innovations such as self-scrubbing machines, more self-checkouts and Walmart online pickup towers.

But what does this mean for future jobs?

“There has to be a shift. Two hundred years ago, we put a paddle wheel in a river. We started to have machinery rather than human horsepower,” said Scott Roberts, director of the Master of Business Administration program at the University of the Incarnate Word.

Roberts said machines taking the place of human workers is something that’s been seen for a long time. He said this is just another migration shift in the retail industry, using more technology in stores to keep up with consumer demand.

“This is a migration, and it feels like this will be a pretty quick migration. It's not going to be a 100-year period. It may be in five to six years,” Roberts said.

Justice said the machines will not be replacing store associates.

“We aren't necessarily replacing anything. We are still taking the stuff down, but it's definitely about efficiency and customer service,” he said.

Roberts said that, whether we see fewer jobs in the retail industry in the future or not, the human touch will always be necessary.

“There is going to be a need for some compassion, somebody that can make a decision that doesn't work off of an algorithm. That is going to have to keep going on,” Roberts said.

Some of the San Antonio-area Walmarts already have the online orange pickup towers located near the front of the stores and the self-scrubbing floor cleaners.

Customers can expect the Bossanova to start popping up in area stores sometime this year.

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