Walmart Uses AI to Mind the Store

The technology identifies situations from ripe bananas to wet floors but doesn’t recognize shopper faces or track their movements.

April 26, 2019

LEVITTOWN, N.Y.—High-resolution cameras hang from the ceiling at one of Walmart's busiest Neighborhood Market grocery stores. One camera points to a table of bananas and can determine how ripe the bananas are from their color. When a banana starts to bruise, the camera will send an alert to a worker, according to U.S. News.

In the past, banana monitoring was a task for a human employee, who probably didn’t have time to inspect every piece of fruit. This effort is a living technology lab and Walmart’s biggest attempt to digitize the physical store, using thousands of cameras inside this 50,000-square-foot outlet. The company plans to combine the cameras with other technology, such as sensors on shelves, to monitor the store in real time and respond quickly to any problems.

The technology, which was shown to The Associated Press recently, knows when shelves need to be restocked or if shopping carts are running low. It can report spills on the floor and even detect when extra cash registers need to be opened before long lines start to form.

Walmart’s efforts with artificial intelligence come as Amazon raised the stakes in the grocery business with its purchase of Whole Foods Market nearly two years ago. That purchase put added pressure on Walmart and other traditional stores, such as Kroger, to invest in more technology. But at the same time, the retailers are trying to keep food prices down and manage expenses.

Walmart hopes to add some of the new technology to 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 and where we are testing and learning,” said Mike Hanrahan, CEO of Walmart's Intelligent Retail Lab. “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 that at this point, the cameras are programmed to focus primarily on products and the shelves. They do not recognize faces, determine the ethnicity of a person picking up the product or track the movement of shoppers, he added. A glass enclosed data center at the back of the store houses nine cooling towers, 100 servers and other computer equipment to process and manage the data.

Signs throughout the store inform shoppers that the location is being used as a technology lab, although the cameras may still raise privacy concerns. Hanrahan emphasized that the store does not have cameras at the pharmacy, in front of the rest rooms or 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, a quarter of the size of a typical Sam’s Club store. It is 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.

For more on AI and next-generation technology, see “Mapping Innovation” in the April issue of NACS Magazine.