Walmart fires store robots, but Bossa Nova remains bullish

Walmart has ended a contract with Bossa Nova Robotics for six-foot-tall robots that track product inventory in about 500 of its stores.

 Bossa Nova founder and CEO Sarjoun Skaff told Fierce Electronics on Tuesday that he remains “bullish about the future” and stands behind his company’s technology but did not comment on the Walmart decision directly.

 “We have made stunning advances in AI and robotics,” Skaff said. “Our retail AI is the industry’s best and works as well on robots as with fixed cameras. Our hardware, autonomy and operations excelled in more than 500 of the world’s most challenging stores.  With the board’s full support, we continue deploying this technology with our partners in retail and in other fields.”

Skaff added the pandemic has forced Bossa Nova to streamline operations and focus on core technologies. He would not disclose how many workers have been laid off, but one source told The Wall Street Journal that Bossa Nova laid off half its staff after the contract ended.   

In a statement, Walmart confirmed it is no longer working with Bossa Nova after partnering with the robotics firm for five years.  Walmart still plans to use robotics to scrub floors, however.

Partnering with Bossa Nova, Walmart said it “learned a lot about how technology can assist associates, make jobs easier and provide a better customer experience…We will continue testing new technologies and investing in our own processes and apps to best understand and track our inventory and help move products to our shelves as quickly as we can.”

Walmart had expected in January that the Bossa Nova robots would be used in up to 1,000 Walmart stores in the U.S. as part of a move to more automation.

Unnamed sources told the Journal that Walmart ended the contract with Bossa Nova because it found different, simpler solutions that proved as useful as relying on robots.  Because of COVID-19, more Walmart workers were walking aisles to collect goods for orders and finding insights on inventory shortages. Those workers may eventually be used to monitor inventory with other automation, the sources said.

Also, Walmart reportedly told Bossa Nova that it saw an improvement in inventory control with the robots, but not enough of an improvement in revenues and other measures.  One premise of various inventory robots from different manufacturers on the market is that stores will sell more goods if the shelves are stocked and wanted items are made available. 

Walmart’s decision to change course with Bossa Nova shows how companies need to evaluate how robots may or may not work well in less-structured settings.  Industrial robots often work in highly structured settings, such as consistently moving an arm to install a part in a car, but a store environment is less predictable.

The Walmart experience is “an example of trying to force fit automation in situations where it doesn’t necessarily make sense,” said Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates. “Robots do very well in highly organized and standardized environments, but in complex environments with lots of products and disorganization, people are much more efficient. In those situations, robots make mistakes or can’t function and then need human invention anyway. So why not just have people there to begin with?”

Some robots are used to replace high-cost employees, but that may not have been the case with Walmart store employees, Gold said.

“Bottom line: even though you can produce a robot to do something, it still needs to be better and more cost-effective than you can get with a human doing the same job,” Gold added.

RELATED: Bossa Nova’s robots are trained to perform in sun glare