PHOTO: Walmart
Now playing
01:17
Why Walmart wants robots, not workers, stocking shelves
PHOTO: Orangetheory Fitness
Now playing
02:13
This gym is actually opening studios during the pandemic
Now playing
02:24
How holiday spirit is surging despite the Covid-19 pandemic
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 19: A view of the window display as Macy
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - NOVEMBER 19: A view of the window display as Macy's Herald Square unveils Give, Love, Believe 2020 Holiday Windows on November 19, 2020 in New York City. (Photo by Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images for Macy's)
PHOTO: Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images North America/Getty Images for Macy's
Now playing
00:56
Macy's unveils holiday window display with gratitude theme
PHOTO: CNN/Target/Design by John General
Now playing
02:36
It's official: Black Friday is irrelevant
Now playing
02:23
Party City CEO: Consumers still want to celebrate together
NEW YORK, UNITED STATES - 2020/07/08: People wearing face masks shopping inside a retail store in Manhattan as the city enters phase 3 of reopening amid the coronavirus pandemic
As New York City enters phase 3 of reopening retail stores for indoor shopping, restaurants have been postponed for indoor dinning. The U.S. Department of Health recorded a total of 3,219,999 infections, 135,822 death and 1,426,428 recovered since the beginning of the outbreak. (Photo by Braulio Jatar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, UNITED STATES - 2020/07/08: People wearing face masks shopping inside a retail store in Manhattan as the city enters phase 3 of reopening amid the coronavirus pandemic As New York City enters phase 3 of reopening retail stores for indoor shopping, restaurants have been postponed for indoor dinning. The U.S. Department of Health recorded a total of 3,219,999 infections, 135,822 death and 1,426,428 recovered since the beginning of the outbreak. (Photo by Braulio Jatar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
PHOTO: Braulio Jatar/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images
Now playing
01:38
US retail sales improved in September
PHOTO: thehouseofdrew.com
Now playing
02:01
Justin Bieber's footwear collaboration overwhelms site
PHOTO: Walmart
Now playing
01:01
See what's new inside Walmart stores
WHEATON, MARYLAND - APRIL 16: Customers wear face masks to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus as they line up to enter a Costco Wholesale store April 16, 2020 in Wheaton, Maryland. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan ordered that all people must wear some kind of face mask to protect themselves and others from COVID-19 when on public transportation, grocery stores, retail establishments and other places where social distancing is not always possible. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WHEATON, MARYLAND - APRIL 16: Customers wear face masks to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus as they line up to enter a Costco Wholesale store April 16, 2020 in Wheaton, Maryland. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan ordered that all people must wear some kind of face mask to protect themselves and others from COVID-19 when on public transportation, grocery stores, retail establishments and other places where social distancing is not always possible. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
PHOTO: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Now playing
02:32
How masks are reshaping the face of the retail economy
3119 E Third Street Dollar General in Dayton, OH on March 12, 2020.
3119 E Third Street Dollar General in Dayton, OH on March 12, 2020.
PHOTO: Maddie McGarvey for CNN
Now playing
06:07
Dollar General's business is booming. It's also vulnerable to crime, police say
Now playing
03:01
How private equity is gutting retail
Now playing
01:55
All retail bankruptcies are not the same. Here's what you need to know
Now playing
02:44
Is T.J.Maxx recession-proof?
LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 10:  Customers carry bags from  Bed Bath & Beyond store on April 10, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. The home goods retailer is expected to release fourth-quarter earnings figures after the closing bell.  (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 10: Customers carry bags from Bed Bath & Beyond store on April 10, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. The home goods retailer is expected to release fourth-quarter earnings figures after the closing bell. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
PHOTO: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Now playing
00:58
Why Bed Bath & Beyond is in big trouble
A Kohl
A Kohl's Corp. store stands in Concord, California, U.S., on Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2015. Kohl's Corp. is expected to release earnings figures on Feb. 26. Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
PHOTO: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Now playing
01:25
Kohl's needs to reinvent itself. Are Aldi and Amazon the key?
(CNN Business) —  

Walmart wants store workers to help out customers instead of mopping up floors and unloading boxes in backrooms. So it’s increasingly turning to robots to fill those tasks.

The world’s largest retailer announced Tuesday that it is adding thousands of new robots to its stores. By next February, it expects to have autonomous floor scrubbers in 1,860 of its more than 4,700 US stores. Walmart will also have robots that scan shelf inventory at 350 stores. And there will be bots at 1,700 stores that automatically scan boxes as they come off delivery trucks and sort them by department onto conveyer belts.

Walmart says these “smart assistants” will reduce the amount of time workers spend on “repeatable, predictable and manual” tasks in stores and allow them to switch to selling merchandise to shoppers and other customer service roles.

“The overall trend we’re seeing is that automating certain tasks gives associates more time to do work they find fulfilling and to interact with our customers,” CEO Doug McMillon said last year of the new technology in stores.

Walmart will deploy 920-pound autonomous floor scrubbers in 1,860 of its stores by next year.
Walmart will deploy 920-pound autonomous floor scrubbers in 1,860 of its stores by next year.
PHOTO: CNW/Brain Corp

The retailer believes that bringing on bots will lift sales and make stores more efficient. Walmart also says bots limit worker turnover. That’s because it’s hard to consistently find workers to unload trucks and keep up stores overnight.

Walmart has been testing out this technology in hundreds of stores over the past year. Its expansion plan means that the innovations have been effective for Walmart so far. It also signals that robots will play a key role in the retailer’s store strategy going forward.

Big stores and new functions

McMillon often cites Walmart’s (WMT) vast store network as its biggest advantage over rivals, including Amazon (AMZN). Walmart is within 10 miles of 90% of the US population.

But its 178,000 square-foot supercenters are expensive to operate, especially as more shoppers buy online. Walmart invested more than $2 billion last year to remodel stores around the country and equip them to handle customers’ online purchases for in-store pickup. For example, Walmart said Tuesday that it would bring 16-foot-tall pickup towers — automated vending machines that quickly fetch customers’ online orders — to 900 new stores this year.

Walmart is adding robots to help it manage rising costs, including for store labor. Unemployment is at its lowest level in decades, and Walmart and other retailers have increased wages and benefits to attract and keep workers.

“There is a labor shortage in retail,” said Kirthi Kalyanam, director of the Retail Management Institute at Santa Clara University. “It will not be easy for Walmart to add labor to perform these functions. So a high level of automation is required.”

Other retailers and grocery chains are bringing on robots in their stores to reduce costs and assist workers, too. Giant Food Stores is placing “Marty,” a tall, gray robot with googly eyes, in all of its 172 grocery stores. The bot roams around stores looking for spills.

Robot janitors and shelf scanners

Walmart’s 920-pound self-driving floor scrubbers, called the “Auto-C,” use automated technology to navigate custom routes around the store and mop up the floors. The machine relies on sensors to scan for people and aisles. Walmart tested it at 360 stores before deciding to roll it out to an additional 1,500 locations.

“It relieves associates of a job that, quite frankly, is unpopular,” Mark Ibbotson, head of Walmart’s US central operations and real estate, said last year.

Walmart also has been running an experiment at 50 stores with “Auto-S,” a shelf-scanning robot. The bot travels around aisles and identifies which items are low or out of stock and makes sure that prices and product labels are accurate. That information is important to help Walmart squeeze out sales. That bot will soon be in 300 more stores.

Walmart
Walmart's shelf-scanning robot moves around aisles and identifies which items are low or out of stock.
PHOTO: Courtesy of Walmart

And Walmart experimented with a bot in around 500 stores that unloads boxes off delivery trucks and automatically scans and sorts the items by department. Walmart says the unloader saves time and has reduced worker turnover in the labor-intensive back areas of the store. So it’s bringing it to 1,200 new stores.

“We’re seeing increases in sales and reductions in turnover in what had been a very difficult job to fill,” CEO McMillon said last year.

Walmart says all three robots will soon share data with each other to get products to the shelves more quickly and ensure aisles are clean and fully stocked.

The future of retail work

Although Walmart maintains that the bots allow workers to engage more with customers, labor advocates worry that automating manual tasks will trigger layoffs in retail.

Walmart has said that it will reduce the hours it assigns workers to unloading boxes and mopping the floors. That will lead to some employee attrition over time, Walmart said.

“As we evolve, there are certain activities, certain jobs that’ll go away,” Walmart US CFO Michael Dastugue said at an analyst conference last month.

But Walmart expects to use some of the hours it saves because of the robots to assign workers to newly created roles, such as selecting customers’ grocery-pickup and delivery orders.

Dastugue said that technology will force employees to be flexible and “be able to handle change.”

“We may need them to do them one activity in the morning and a different activity in the afternoon,” he said.