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Walmart is opening its first experimental “smart” store, powered by AI

Alyssa Clementi

A Walmart in New York has been implementing new technology into its infrastructure, including artificial intelligence-enabled cameras, interactive displays and a state-of-the-art data center. The transformation will create the chain’s first Intelligent Retail Lab, or IRL, which uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to optimize the customer and employee experience.

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

IRL includes a fully transparent data center consisting of sensors, cameras, processors, and enough cabling to scale Mt.Everest five times. Hanrahan said the data center’s first priority will be to use real-time information to help keep product inventory and availability consistent for customers.

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

Using cameras, sensors, and real-time analytics, the Walmart store will be able to detect and notify employees when an item is running low or out of stock, via an app. IRL’s technology will also be able to alert employees when carts need to be collected or more registers need to be opened.

Hanrahan said the choice to keep all technology viewable was made at the beginning of the project. Additionally, the IRL team made sure there was a “Welcome Center” and educational kiosks spread around the store, which explained what Walmart was doing with customer’s information. For a more fun effect, the team added giant plexiglass boards that mimic the movements of whoever is in front of it.

IRL will employee more than 100 people who will be able to test how the technology makes their workdays more efficient. Hanrahan hopes that by cutting down time spent on day-to- day tasks, employees can allocate more facetime to customers.

“We think it’s something our associates will be excited about,” Hanrahan said. “The technology has been built to improve associates’ jobs, to make their jobs more interesting, to help them alleviate some of the mundane tasks. AI can enhance their skillset in a very rapidly changing world.”

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