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Published on October 1st, 2019 | by Emergent Enterprise


Machine Learning in Big Box Retail – Walmart, Target, and Costco

Emergent Insight:
Retailers are enhancing the customer experience and achieving efficiencies by leveraging artificial intelligence. Niccolo Mejia of Emerj shares what three major retailers – Walmart, Target and Costco – are achieving with the adoption of AI. The most compelling examples show how AI can interpret data to reduce waste – a huge problem in retail especially in the grocery section. And not only can AI make the supply chain more efficient but channels can be set up to direct the food to people in need before it expires. Lots of wins there!

Original Article:
Photo source: Walmart

Many of the top Fortune 500 retailers have begun using AI and ML to solve business problems for various departments. Walmart and Costco share one in grocery stocking, which includes the freshness and condition of the products along with timing the restocks for peak hours.

It can be difficult to keep track of every new tech initiative from the leading retailers as they do not keep all of their information public. That said, they still announce enough of their initiatives to get a good idea of the way they are currently developing.

In this article, we discuss three of the top retailers in the U.S. and how they are leveraging AI, ML, and data science to solve business problems. These problems range from sales recommendations to trying on products virtually. We also use the information the company provides to make inferences about how these companies may want to develop their AI in the future. 

The companies we cover include:

  • Walmart and the Intelligent Retail Lab. This is their largest attempt at instrumenting AI into a brick and mortar store. 
  • Target and their initiatives to boost eCommerce recommendations along with a virtual product-trying application. 
  • Costco and their “future state bakery experience,” or ML-powered method of keeping track of fresh food stock and reducing waste by baking a recommended amount of product.

Our look into these top retailers starts with Walmart and their latest attempt to fully digitize a store.

Walmart’s Intelligent Retail Lab and Robot Monitors

The Intelligent Retail Lab is a Walmart store equipped with thousands of cameras that relay information about the stock or condition of products as well as customer shopping behavior. The cameras send this information to a database for a machine learning model that is constantly learning more about managing the store. Walmart’s tech incubator Store No8 developed the lab as an attempt to explore the possibilities of AI in retail.

A Walmart newsroom reporter asked Mike Hanrahan, CEO of Intelligent Retail Lab, about how the employees of the instrumented store felt about the changes. With regards to working with the AI’s alerts and recommendations, Hanrahan said: 

“We think it’s something our associates will be excited about. 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.”

Walmart seems to be exploring a few major AI functions by instrumenting a 50,000 square foot store with cameras and sensors. These include:

  • Product inventory and availability
  • Opening and closing registers
  • Determining the availability of shopping carts

The lab is able to detect if certain products need to be restocked as they are taken off the shelves by customers. Once the stock becomes visibly low to any of the many cameras in a given aisle, the system will alert the staff to restock the products that are running low. 

Additionally, the system can keep track of the discoloration of bananas across the day. Once the system recognizes that the bananas have become too brown to keep on the shelves, it sends a similar alert to the staff to send someone to throw them away.

Walmart claims the Intelligent Retail Lab’s system can determine when more cash registers need to be opened. Though they do not elaborate much further on this, we can infer that the cameras watch for a light-up signal above each register to determine whether it is open, and compare these numbers with the volume of customers waiting to check out. This may result in an alert for a human employee to come to operate a register if not all of the registers are automated.

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The Emergent Enterprise (EE) website brings together current and important news in enterprise mobility and the latest in innovative technologies in the business world. The articles are hand selected by Emergent Enterprise and not the result of automated electronic aggregating. The site is designed to be a one-stop shop for anyone who has an ongoing interest in how technology is changing how the world does business and how it affects the workforce from the shop floor to the top floor. EE encourages visitor contributions and participation through comments, social media activity and ratings.

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