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Walmart Brings AI’s Online Efficiency to a New Store of the Future

Walmart has launched its first artificial intelligence-enabled retail experience.

The company’s Intelligent Retail Lab (IRL), which sounds like venue for sci-fi shopping experiments, is actually an efficiency program that includes AI-enabled cameras, sensors and interactive consumer displays. All of this will serve to improve the consumer experience by ensuring product availability, as well as helping employees by tracking inventory levels and freshness.

The guinea pig for the project is Walmart’s Levittown, New York location, which has been quietly outfitted with the new technology over the past few months.

The store’s newly-installed cameras and sensors detect and identify products on shelves. They then transmit real-time information to employees about how long an item has been on display, and note when a product is sold. The data accrued through this process provides insight into sales demand, letting employees know not just when to re-stock, but how much.

The technology eliminates the need for Walmart associates to roam the store and make note of which products are running low—instead, the information is at their fingertips. Walmart’s first experiment with the technology centers around its meat section, where freshness and availability are of prime importance.

While AI has played a significant role in e-commerce of late, its applications haven’t yet translated to mass market retailers. Walmart’s decision to experiment on one of its busiest retail locations underscores its confidence in the program, as well as the company’s dedication to advancing AI as a part of the in-store experience.

“Technology enables us to understand so much more—in real time—about our business,” Mike Hanrahan, CEO of Walmart’s IRL program, said in a statement. “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.”

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Instead of implementing hasty changes, Walmart is keen to learn. The program’s early days will be spent gathering data, the company said.

“You can’t be overly enamored with the shiny object element of AI,” Hanrahan explained, adding that some technologies would be “unrealistic to scale and probably, long-term, not beneficial for the consumer.”

What is beneficial to the consumer, though, is the addition of a bit of whimsy.

Outside the glass-encased data center where the information is processed, two interactive displays encourage consumers to interact with the AI technology by moving around in front of the screens. The system reacts to their body positioning, creating art-like patterns on a large, pixelated canvas.

“We chose right from the very start to not hide the technology,” Hanrahan said.

Instead, Walmart is embracing its evolution. While the program’s biggest impact will take place behind the scenes, it’s a reminder to consumers that the future isn’t far away.