retail news in context, analysis with attitude

The Washington Post has a story about how Walmart’s embrace of technology and automation - “the nation’s largest private employer has unleashed an army of robots into more than 1,500 of its jumbo stores, with thousands of automated shelf-scanners, box-unloaders, artificial-intelligence cameras and other machines doing the jobs once left to human employees” - is having a perhaps unexpected impact on human employees.

“Walmart executives have promised the all-hours robot workhorses will let employees endure less drudgery and enjoy ‘more satisfying jobs,’ while also ensuring shoppers see cleaner stores, fuller shelves and faster checkouts,” the story says.

“But the rise of the machines has had an unexpected side effect: Their jobs, some workers said, have never felt more robotic. By incentivizing hyper-efficiency, the machines have deprived the employees of tasks they used to find enjoyable. Some also feel like their most important assignment now is to train and babysit their often inscrutable robot colleagues.”

Plus, as humans train robots to do what used to be their jobs, “this awkward interplay of man vs. machine could become one of the defining tensions of the modern workplace as more stores, hotels, restaurants and other businesses roll in robots that could boost company reliability and trim labor costs.

“Many Walmart workers said they had long feared robots would one day take their jobs. But they had not expected this strange transition era in which they are working alongside machines that can be as brittle, clumsy and easily baffled by the messy realities of big-box retail as a human worker can be.”
KC's View:
This is a sticky wicket in so many ways … there is, of course, the almost irresistible temptation to make references to Terminator or , though the folks at Walmart would prefer references to the cute droids of Star Wars.

A couple of things that grab my attention. One is that the story quotes Walmart president-CEO Doug McMillon says that “the machines were an important part of how the company, which has annual revenue of $500 billion, could trim waste and ‘operate with discipline’.” That sounds a lot more like efficiency than effectiveness to me, and I always worry when companies think that way.

But what really would concern me is the story’s reference to the Auto-C self-driving floor scrubber that operates in a Georgia Walmart supercenter; the piece says that shoppers are not always sure how to interact with it, and that an employee at the store says that “a man fell asleep on top of the machine as it whirred obediently down a toy aisle.

“Walmart executives said they are skeptical that happened, because the Auto-C is designed to stop if someone interferes with its work.”

I get a little worried when executives go on the record as doubting the word of an employee. It says something about the relationship between management and labor, and it is’t good.