Walmart Intelligent Retail Lab Stores are AI Powered Stores of the Future

AI monitoring store shelves at new Walmart Lab

Walmart is leveraging artificial intelligence to power new insights in yet another iteration of the “store of the future”it unveiled recently. Retail increasingly is on the cutting edge of automation and how machine learning is changing how we shop.

Walmart’s New Intelligent Retail Lab (IRL) Gives a Glimpse into the Future of Retail

  • The new retail store uses thousands of cameras and sensors to manage the store more efficiently
  • Walmart has separately already added up to 4,000 shelf-scanning robots in stores
  • Along with AmazonGo, Walmart is eagerly investing in new technologies for their brick-and-mortar stores.
Walmart

Imagine a store that’s self-automated. It can tell when bruised bananas need to be swapped for fresh ones or more cash registers need to open before lines get too long — without the intervention of humans.

That’s the reality of automation in retail and it will seem like it’s always been that way. Who’s minding the store? In an era of the Internet of Things and smart cities, AI will increasingly be touching upon even our most mundane interactions as consumers.

IRL with Artificial Intelligence

This Walmart experiment of the “store of the future” is a sort of testing ground for emerging technologies, including AI-enabled cameras and interactive displays.

The store, a working concept called the Intelligent Retail Lab — or “IRL” for short — operates out of a Walmart Neighborhood Market in Levittown, N.Y.

We first heard about this project in November, 2018. Thousands of cameras suspended from the ceiling, combined with other technology like sensors on shelves, will monitor the store in real time so workers can quickly replenish products or fix other problems. But how long before you won’t need those human workers? It cannot be long now.

Watch this video to further understand it. The technology, shown first to The Associated Press, will also be able to spot spills, track when shelves need to be restocked and know when shopping carts are running low.

The Future of Retail is Automated

AI-powered cameras have new uses in the smart store of the future. New cameras can work along with humans to solve real issues such monitoring inventory levels to determine, for example, if staff needs to bring out more meat from the back-room refrigerators to restock the shelves.

While this does not sound like a technology that will replace many humans, neither did the robots who scan the selves from other pilots. However taken together, all of these AI powered solutions do reduce the need for humans at their stores. Just as AmazonGo stores do not require cashiers and require less people to maintain a single location.

What could something like Walmart’s IRL AI-powered cameras really become? Walmart’s IRL is more nuanced than many “store of the future” concepts we’ve seen. Cameras and sensors throughout the store can recognize what’s going on and what it means to the store’s upkeep and logistics in real-time, faster and better than humans would be capable of doing.

AI Powered Cameras with Executive Power

Walmart’s deep dive into artificial intelligence in its physical store comes as Amazon raised the stakes in the grocery business with its purchase of Whole Foods Market nearly two years ago. Whole Whole Foods has thus far failed to make serious progress under Amazon’s stewardship, Walmart is investing in AI tech and E-commerce making what appears to be serious strides in innovation and digital transformation.

In this technology, AI is actually the brain behind what store associates do. If you think about it, AI are like the managers. The idea is that the AI will help the store associates know more precisely where and when to restock products.

The AI signals the human actions required in the store context and which task need to be fulfilled in order for the store to run smoothly. Amazon E-commerce warehouses has an AI system that can fire you without human intervention if you are failing to be productive.

AI as an overseer in this context is coming, and not just to the retail industry. Amazon has been rolling out cashier-less Amazon Go stores, which have shelf sensors that track the 1,000 products on their shelves.

As cashiers and shelf stockers disappear, retail managers of various kinds might also no longer be needed. With buy online pick-up in store (BOPIS) becoming more popular, soon a robot could in theory handle your order in an autonomous vehicle all without human intervention in the next ten years, by 2029.

Walmart’s own cameras and other sensors in the store pump out 1.6 TB of data per second, or the equivalent of three years’ worth of music, which necessitates a big data center on site. At the IRL store, it’s glass-encased, bathed in blue light and on display to the public. That’s an impressive feat that will likely evolve quickly.

This could seem a little intimidating — AI cameras and giant servers. But don’t worry, shopper, these AI-powered cameras only do very specific things and improve convenience in our retail customer experiences.

Walmart is a behemoth of retail. Walmart says more than 140 million U.S. shoppers visit a store in person or online per week, creating a treasure trove of data. In its latest fiscal year ended Jan. 31, Walmart generated more than $675 billion in overall sales globally.

Walmart can afford to power artificial intelligence in its stores along with robots. Walmart’s tech incubator Store No 8 has positioned the store within one of the company’s busiest locations. Walmart’s project is downright exciting.

An in-store AI lab can evolve quickly into the future of retail. How AI can use impressive arrays of sensors, cameras and processors together will increase exponentially in the 2020s and while these are early days one can imagine what this tech could become.

Called the Intelligent Retail Lab — or IRL — the store is focused on inventory and availability but could be trained for other purposes as well. As computing, the Cloud and AI evolves, we might begin to see this kind of technology in our cities everywhere doing things and tracking data beyond our understanding.

Mike Hanrahan, CEO of Walmart’s Intelligent Retail Lab, in front of a kiosk that describes to customers the high technology in use at a Walmart Neighborhood Market. (Mark Lennihan/The Associated Press)