Walmart robots: Labor saver or employee eliminator?

Walmart invited reporters into one of its Bay Area stores to show of a new labor saving employee: an artificially intelligent robot.

It's usually hard for broadcasters to get into a Walmart with cameras, but when the subject was robots, it was downright surprising. The initial question was: is this is just another "wow" technology, or a look at a more robotic, less human, workforce?

People shopping at the Milpitas Walmart on Tuesday, were confronted by the future in the form of a robot rolling, not strolling, up and down the aisles.

Made by southern California-based Bossa Nova Robotics, the robot silently scans stock on the shelves  to make sure it's what each and every customer expects.

"Scan the shelves. They're looking for out of stock items, prices that are incorrect, items that are not zoned properly, they're in the wrong place," said Tiffany Wilson, a Walmart executive. "Then, then, are able to more effectively restock those shelves, re-merchandise those shelves. A robot's never gonna be good at that," added Martin Hitch of Bossa Nova Robotics.

Research shows, shoppers' most common pet peeves are items out of stock, messy stock and incorrect pricing. Another huge peeve: not enough people to answer questions. "So that they can spend more time selling merchandise, working with customers which is the best part of working in retail," said Ms. Wilson. "Retail will tell you that, if you actually engage with customers, they typically spend more money," added Mr. Hitch.

With the robots, Walmart could then use its associates to provide a better level of personalized customer service, That is something that every big box store could benefit from. The other side of Walmart, the digital side, could fully take on Amazon in that realm. One shopper, voiced the most common concern these days about robotics in general.

"Well, it's a little scary because I feel it's taking somebody's job. But if it isn't taking somebody's job, if it's gonna do benefits for Walmart, then it would be good," said Walmart shopper Deborah Espinoza.

Ms. Wilson countered with, "I want people to know that this is a tool. This is a way of giving information to our associates so that they can better serve customers."

Tiffany Wilson/Walmart Executive-- In fact, said Ms. Wilson, Walmart  just hired 18,000 people to shop for and deliver groceries to online customers; jobs that could not exist without new technology. "There is no question that any new technology shifts skill sets around from previous roles. We've seen that for centuries," said Bossa Nova's Hitch.

Even with the current stage of robotics in many applications, at 4.1% the U.S. unemployment rate is at a 17-year low.