Walmart Double Downs on Warehouse Automation, Robots

The retailer will start using more giant automated claws and rolling robots rather than people.

April 17, 2023

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—Walmart has increased its use of automation and robots in its 1.4 million square foot warehouse in Brooksville, Florida, the first distribution center for shelf-stable household items, including packaged foods, with such technology, CNBC reports. The retailer will add the Symbotic technology to each of its 42 regional distribution centers, with around a third of its locations receiving shipments from automated facilities by the end of January 2024.

The switch to more automation in its warehouses is part of a larger initiative to boost profits, with CEO Doug McMillon expecting profits to increase faster than sales over the next five years. Walmart will focus on more automation and growing advertising, fulfillment and last-mile delivery services. “We’re now in a phase that is less about scaling store pickup and delivery, e-commerce assortment and e-commerce FC [fulfillment center] square footage and more about execution and operating margin improvement,” he said.

Within three years, the retailer thinks around two-thirds of all stores will receive service through some automation. The move toward more automation will cull some of the 1.6 million jobs currently held by employees. However, David Guggina, executive vice president of Walmart U.S. supply chain operations, said automation is more about upping capacity, not slashing positions. During the first year of the Brooksville facility’s automation, no workers left their jobs.  

Brad Thomas, a retail analyst at KeyBanc Capital Markets who toured the automated center during an investor event, said the robots helped make unloading trailers easier for workers. “Ten years ago, Walmart was still playing catch-up in areas like e-commerce, and I think that many of the investments they have made are bearing fruit,” he said. “We’re actually seeing areas like automation where arguably Walmart is more of a leader than a follower.”

In an interview, McMillon said he anticipates the composition of the retailer’s workforce will change. For example, he said, Walmart may need fewer people to unload pallets at warehouses, but more people to deliver online orders to customers’ doors.