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The new Luddites: Walmart reverses store automation and Primark remains offline


A day after Ocado Group PLC (LON:OCDO) deepened its investment in retail robotics, US giant Walmart Inc (NYSE:WMT) backed out and Primark’s owners insisted the fast-fashion chain was not going online.

Like the Luddites in 18th century Manchester who railed against the introduction of machinery which threatened their skilled craft, tech bashing could occur on a grand scale in the US after the Presidential election, as there have been called to weaken the power of tech behemoths like Amazon, Facebook and Google.

READ: Rise of the robots – Ocado enters non-food retail and logistics sectors with new acquisitions

Both Democrats and Republicans have raised antitrust concerns about big tech, while the revocation of Section 230 is expected to create big headaches for Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

As for robots, Walmart has decided to end a big contract with robotics company Bossa Nova Robotics, where shelf-scanning robots worked alongside humans in around 500 of its stores.

According to the report in the Wall Street Journal, the world’s largest retailer found that its human workers could do the job just as well.

Bossa Nova, whose robots use machine vision to scan shelves and identify what products needed restocking, said earlier this year that Walmart was planning to expand their use into 1,000 stores.

The coronavirus pandemic seems to have sparked the move, with the rise in online shopping resulting in Walmart finding it had more staff frequently walking the aisles to collect online orders, the WSJ said.

The report also highlighted a possible ESG angle – the social licence that retailers have with their local customers.

Walmart’s US chief executive John Furner was worried about what customers would think seeing robots in the company’s stores.

“We learned a lot about how technology can assist associates, make jobs easier and provide a better customer experience,” a company spokesperson told the newspaper. “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.”

Also on Tuesday, Primark owner Associated British Foods (LON:ABF) said it is not looking to develop an online presence for its Primark division, despite the forced closures this year.

The clothing chain is expected to have lost £2bn of sales and some £650mln of profit in the 12 months to mid-September as a result of COVID-19 lockdowns.

Earlier in the week, Ocado spent US$300mln snapping up two robot-arm developers, including Kindred Systems, which specialises in ‘piece picking’ robots, a technology that is expected by those such as Amazon’s Jeff Bezos to replace humans entirely from the logistical layer of the retail industry, if not also construction and many other sectors.

Also this year companies in the UK such as Boots, Co-op Food and Eve Sleep have also invested in warehouse automation, with Amazon stepping up its delivery automation capabilities.

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