Walmart has unveiled a "store of the future", that is managed by AI-compatible cameras. The concept was named Intelligent Retail Lab and is housed in a Walmart supermarket in Levittown, New York.
The Levittown store is one of Walmart's busiest supermarkets, selling more than 30,000 references on 4600 sqm. The store with 100 employees is a real environment test zone for the Intelligent Retail Lab, with a series of cameras in the ceiling.
That may sound a lot like the Amazon Go convenience stores, but that is already where similarities end. Unlike the Amazon-stores, the cameras are not used to see which customers buy what products and to automate the checkout process: rather, they keep track of stock and see which shelves are empty and need refilling - and even which products have past their expiration dates and need replacing. This way, staff can use more of their time to actually help customers as the stock checks are done for them. In the future, the cameras should also check the availability of shopping trolleys and whether additional cash registers need to be opened.
The cameras and other sensors do generate a huge amount of data, which needs to be analysed and stored. In the Levittown store, this is not hidden away on a remote location, but the data centre has been put in a glass casing inside the store, so that the public can really see it. The chain promises the data are not stored for longer than a week. The store also houses information kiosks, where customers can learn more about the technology that is used for the retail lab.
Moreover, the store features an interactive wall, where customers can have fun using artificial intelligence. The 'smart wall' can see and simulate the customer's body posture (see picture beneath). Walmart's goal is clear: trying everything to make the technology look less intimidating.
“Technology enables us to understand so much more – in real time – about our business", IRL CEO Mike Hanrahan says. "When you combine all the information we’re gathering in IRL with Walmart’s 50-plus years of expertise in running stores, you can create really powerful experiences that improve the lives of both our customers and associates."
The company also stresses that the technology does not replace jobs, but rather makes them more interesting - outsourcing boring, repetitive tasks to AI. This is the same arguments that Walmart used to 'hire' 4000 additional robots earlier this month, for repetitive tasks like conveyor belt duties, cleaning and dealing with e-commerce pick-ups. Still, the question remains whether a store that is run more efficiently thanks to technology, still needs all the employees it does need now.