May 2019 | News | Takeaways

Your Next Walmart Run: Don't Forget the AI

Tags: Retail, Technology , Supply Chain

A Walmart Neighborhood Market in Levittown, New York, featuring artificial intelligence-enabled cameras, interactive displays, and a massive data center is the retailer's new Intelligent Retail Lab (IRL).

While the application of artificial intelligence (AI) in e-commerce is now table stakes, few companies have physically explored its potential. Until now.

Positioned within one of the company's busiest locations, the IRL is set up to gather information about what's happening inside the store through an array of sensors, cameras, and processors. All this hardware is connected by enough cabling to scale Mt. Everest five times and enough processing power to download three years' worth of music each second.

The first thing this equipment will help the IRL team focus on is product inventory and availability. In short, the team will use real-time information to explore efficiencies that will allow associates to know more precisely when to restock products, so items are available on shelves when they're needed.

Here's one example: When you go shopping, you want the products you buy to be in stock when you get to the store. In IRL, a combination of cameras and real-time analytics will automatically trigger out-of-stock notifications to internal apps that alert associates when to re-stock. This means the store has to automatically:

  • Detect the product on the shelf.
  • Recognize the specific product (decipher the differences between one pound of ground beef and two pounds of ground beef, for example).
  • Compare the quantities on the shelf to upcoming sales demand.

The result is that associates won't have to continually comb the store to replace products running low on the shelves. They'll know what to bring out of the back room before customers show up. With the technology in IRL, customers can trust that the products they need will be available during the times they shop.

Because there are many such scenarios to test, IRL will be in data-gathering mode in its early days. The focus will be on learning from the technology, not hastily implementing changes to operations.

So, before jumping to more futuristic concepts, the IRL team is starting with real, practical solutions such as the meat inventory example, as well as making sure shopping carts are available and registers are open.

Walking into the IRL for the first time is both familiar and unique. There are the expected staples: associates, cash registers, and shelves with thousands of products. There are also features that stick out right away, such as a glass-encased data center bathed in blue glow.

The idea of a live shopping environment infused with AI is exciting, but it also raises questions about all the visible technology. This was a key consideration for the team while designing IRL, and the store includes multiple information stations that customers can visit to understand exactly how AI makes the store tick.

As customers shop, they can interact with many educational displays. Small educational kiosks are interspersed throughout the store. A Welcome Center allows customers to dive deeper into technical specifications and common questions.

But, the real fun is just outside the data center where the servers are housed. Flanking the plexiglass windows are two large displays—one of which encourages participants to move around and learn how technology reacts to body positioning.

Among the customers who'll be absorbing knowledge are IRL associates, who will be undertaking these retail experiments every day. With technology performing mundane tasks like evaluating if shopping carts need to be corralled, associates will be able to spend more time on tasks humans can do best, such as helping customers or adding creative touches to merchandise displays.

—Matt Smith, Walmart