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Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

For years, retail has been lurching toward automation. Last week, Walmart took a significant step back.

Why it matters: In a rare win for retail workers, Walmart decided to take shelf-scanning robots out of its stores in favor of humans. But automation is still coming faster for retail jobs than for most other occupations, experts say.

Driving the news: Walmart had deployed 6-foot-tall shelf-scanning bots from Bossa Nova Robotics in 500 of its 4,700 U.S. stores before the retail titan decided to end the contract. The bots' job was to take stock of inventory.

  • Walmart ended its partnership with Bossa Nova because it found that humans could do that job just as well, the Wall Street Journal's Sarah Nassauer reports.
  • Bossa Nova laid off around 50% of its workforce after losing the contract, per Nassauer.

But, but, but: When it comes to retail jobs, "in the longer term and at scale, the economics favor automation," J.P. Gownder, an expert on automation at Forrester, told me a year ago. And he stands by that projection.

  • "There are always bumps along the way in the launch of new technology categories," he says. "There will be vendors who lose big contracts along the way."
  • But Walmart is still rapidly automating other types of jobs at its stores and warehouses. And there are other retail chains, like Schnucks and Giant, that continue to use shelf-scanning bots, Gownder notes.
  • On top of that, social distancing guidelines might make some retailers even more eager to replace human in-store workers with robots, he says.

Go deeper

Nov 21, 2020 - Economy & Business

Touchless travel could threaten airport jobs

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios. Photos: Universal History Archive, Pictorial Parade/Getty Images

Air travel is becoming a touchless, self-directed journey, which poses a threat to traditional airport customer service jobs.

Why it matters: Automation and artificial intelligence have long been viewed as a threat to jobs, but the unprecedented disruption COVID-19 is posing to the travel industry could have lasting workforce implications.

Tony Hsieh, longtime Zappos CEO, dies at 46

Tony Hsieh. Photo: FilmMagic/FilmMagic

Tony Hsieh, the longtime ex-chief executive of Zappos, died on Friday after being injured in a house fire, his lawyer told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He was 46.

The big picture: Hsieh was known for his unique approach to management, and following the 2008 recession his ongoing investment and efforts to revitalize the downtown Las Vegas area.

Dan Primack, author of Pro Rata
6 hours ago - Economy & Business

The unicorn stampede is coming

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Airbnb and DoorDash plan to go public in the next few weeks, capping off a very busy year for IPOs.

What's next: You ain't seen nothing yet.