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First Look: Walmart debuts AI-powered store of the future

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Walmart is testing the future of in-store artificial intelligence (AI) at a Neighborhood Market location in Levittown, New York.

Walmart is live-testing varied AI-based technologies at what the chain calls its “Intelligent Retail Lab,” or IRL. The 50,000-sq.-ft. store, selected by Walmart’s Store No. 8 tech incubator as one of the retailer’s busiest locations, contains more than 30,000 products and has 100 associates working there.

The IRL is set up to gather information about what’s happening inside the store through an array of sensors, cameras and processors. Hardware is connected by what Walmart says is enough cabling to scale Mt. Everest five times and enough processing power to download three years’ worth of music (27,000 hours) each second.

Initially, Walmart is using the IRL to test how real-time information provided by AI-based store systems can inform associates more precisely when to restock products, so items are available on shelves when they’re needed.

“Customers can be confident about products being there, about the freshness of produce and meat,” said Mike Hanrahan, CEO of IRL. “Those are the types of things that AI can really help with.”

In the near future, 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 will require AI technology enabling the store to automatically detect a product on the shelf, recognize specific products (such as discerning between a one-pound and two-pound package of ground beef), and compare shelf quantities to demand forecasts.

Due to complexities of AI-based scenarios, which also include ensuring registers are open and shopping carts are available, Walmart is currently using the IRL to gather data and implement changes after obtaining learnings. One goal of the IRL is to free associates from performing mundane tasks, such as determining if more shopping carts are needed, so they can focus on activities like interacting with customers and improving merchandise displays.

The physical store environment includes standard Walmart Neighborhood Market features, such as shelving and cash registers, as well as unique features such as a glass-encased data center. Flanking the plexiglass windows are two large displays, one of which encourages participants to move around and learn how AI technology reacts to body positioning.

The store includes multiple information kiosks for customers who want to know more about the AI testing that is occurring. A welcome center at the front end allows customers to obtain more information about technical specifications and have common questions answered.

“We’ve got 50,000 square feet of real retail space,” said Hanrahan. “The scope of what we can do operationally is so exciting. Technology enables us to understand so much more – in real time – about our business. 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.”

Click here to see a video on Walmart’s new lab store.
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