Walmart using AI to watch the store
Inside one of Walmart’s busiest Neighborhood Market grocery stores, in Levittown, N.Y., high-resolution cameras suspended from the ceiling point to a table of bananas. They can tell how ripe the bananas are from their color.
When a banana starts to bruise, the cameras send an alert to a worker. Normally, that task would have relied on the subjective assessment of a human, who likely doesn’t have time to inspect every piece of fruit.
Welcome to Walmart’s Intelligent Retail Lab — the retail giant’s biggest attempt to digitize the physical store.
1000s of cameras
The thousands of cameras are a key feature of the lab, which recently opened inside this 50,000-square-foot store. Walmart envisions using them, combined with other technology like sensors on shelves, to monitor the store in real time so its workers can quickly react to replenish products or fix other problems.
The technology will also be able to track when shelves need to be restocked or if shopping carts are running low. It can spot spills on the floor and even detect when cash registers need to be opened up before long lines start forming.
Walmart hopes to start scaling some of the new technology at other stores in the next six months, with an eye toward lowering costs and prices. As the shopping experience improves, the retailer expects to see higher sales.
“We really like to think of this store as an artificial intelligence factory, a place where we are building these products, experiences, where we are testing and learning,” said Mike Hanrahan, CEO of Walmart’s Intelligent Retail Lab and co-founder of Jet.com, purchased by Walmart three years ago.
“If we know in real time everything that’s happening in the store from an inventory and in stock perspective, that really helps us rethink about how we can potentially manage the store.”
Hanrahan said the cameras are programmed to focus primarily on the products and the shelves at this point. They currently do not recognize shoppers’ faces, determine the ethnicity of a person picking up the product, or track the movement of shopper, he said.
There are signs throughout the store alerting and educating shoppers about how the store is being used as a lab. Still, the cameras could raise privacy concerns.
“Machine learning fundamentally finds and matches patterns,” said Steven M. Bellovin, professor of computer science at Columbia University and an expert on privacy, who hasn’t seen the new Walmart AI Lab. But he said companies run into trouble when they start to match the behavior to a specific customer.
Hanrahan said Walmart has made sure to protect shoppers’ privacy and also emphasized that it does not have cameras at the pharmacy, in front of the rest rooms or in its employees’ breakrooms.
Walmart’s new living lab marks its second in a physical store. Last year, Walmart’s Sam’s Club opened a 32,000-square-foot lab store, the quarter of a size of a typical Sam’s Club store. It’s using the store to test new features surrounding its Scan & Go App, which lets customers scan items as they shop and then buy from their phones, skipping the checkout line.
The retail lab is the third project from Walmart’s new incubation arm, created after the Jet.com acquisition as a way for the discounter to shape the future of retail. It follows the launch of Jetblack, a shopping by text service aimed at affluent shoppers in New York.
Hanrahan said the company is embracing the labs in stores because it can better understand the real ways that technology affects customers and workers. It also wants to educate shoppers.
Walmart has made a point to not hide the technology. Small educational kiosks are set up throughout the store. It plans to bring in local schools and communities.
Despite the signs and visible cameras, many shoppers including Marcy Seinberg from Wantagh, N.Y., didn’t seem to notice or care.
“I am not bothered by it,” Seinberg said. “If technology saves me money, I would be interested.”