Walmart’s New Intelligent Retail Lab Shows the Future of Retail

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By: Matt Smith, Walmart

Over the past few months, a Walmart Neighborhood Market in Levittown, New York, has been quietly transforming. With artificial intelligence-enabled cameras, interactive displays and a massive data center, this store suggests a retail future that seems like science fiction.

Walmart’s new Intelligent Retail Lab – or “IRL” for short, is a unique real-world shopping environment designed to explore the possibilities artificial intelligence can contribute to the store experience.

While the application of AI in e-commerce is now table stakes, there haven’t been many physical explorations of its potential. But IRL is designed to do just that.

Walmart’s tech incubator Store No 8 has positioned the store within one of the company’s busiest locations. Testing new, innovative ideas within a real store containing over 30,000 items is an opportunity that Mike Hanrahan, CEO of IRL, finds exhilarating.

“We’ve got 50,000 square feet of real retail space. The scope of what we can do operationally is so exciting,” he said. “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.”

What’s Inside IRL

IRL is set up to gather information about what’s happening inside the store through an impressive 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 (27,000 hours) each second.

According to Hanrahan, the first thing this equipment will help the team focus on is product inventory and availability.

Here’s one example the team is working on for the near future: When you go shopping for the week, 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 sounds simple, but it means the store has to automatically: Detect the product on the shelf, Recognize the specific product, and Compare the quantities on the shelf to the upcoming sales demand.

Because there are many scenarios just like this to be tested, IRL will be in data-gathering mode in its early days. The focus will be on learning from the technology and not implementing changes to operations in haste.

“You can’t be overly enamored with the shiny object element of AI,” Hanrahan cautioned. “There are a lot of shiny objects out there that are doing things we think are unrealistic to scale and probably, long-term, not beneficial for the consumer.”

As customers shop, they can interact with a number of educational displays. Small educational kiosks are interspersed throughout the store. A Welcome Center at the front end 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, IRL’s more than 100 associates will be undertaking these retail experiments every day, getting a firsthand view of what’s possible for the future. 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.

The article is originally published HERE on April 25, 2019.