In a keynote address at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Walmart president and CEO Doug McMillon and other Walmart execs offered a glimpse as to how the retail giant was putting new technologies, including augmented reality (AR), drones, generative AI, and other artificial intelligence tech to work in order improve the shopping experience for customers.

At the trade show, the company revealed a handful of new products, including two AI-powered tools for managing product search and replenishment, as well as a new beta AR social commerce platform called “Shop with Friends.” It also highlighted how it was using AI in other areas of its business, including within Sam’s Club and in apps used by store associates.

Most notably, Walmart is launching a new generative AI search feature on iOS that will allow customers to search for products by use cases, instead of by product or brand names. For example, you could ask Walmart to return search results for things needed for a “football watch party,” instead of specifically typing in searches for chips, wings, drinks, or a 90-inch TV. These enhanced search results will span categories, rivaling Google’s SGE (Search Generative Experience), which can recommend products and show various factors to consider, along with reviews, prices, images, and more.

Image Credits: Walmart

Ahead of CES, the company had demonstrated an AI shopping assistant that would let customers interact with a chatbot as they shopped, to ask questions and receive personalized product suggestions, as well. At the time, Walmart teased that a generative AI-powered search feature was also in the works. It suggested customers could ask for things like a “unicorn-themed birthday party” and get results like unicorn-themed napkins, balloons, streamers, and more. Now the feature is rolling out on mobile devices, iOS first.

Another potentially promising use of AI involves the replenishment of frequently ordered items.

Walmart will initially test this use case with Walmart InHome Replenishment, which will use AI and its existing replenishment expertise combined to create online shopping carts for customers with items they regularly order. Because it’s only available through the InHome program, these items are then delivered to a customer’s fridge in their kitchen or garage using the smart lock-powered InHome delivery service.

Image Credits: Walmart

However, if the feature works well, it’s not hard to imagine how it could be put to use to offer replenishment of other household items as well, similar to Amazon’s Subscribe-and-Save.

Surprisingly, Amazon has not yet leveraged AI to do the same (i.e. to augment or replace Dash Replenishment). However, the online retailer has been putting AI to work in other ways, including by helping connect customers with the right product by summarizing product reviews, highlighting key attributes, or helping them find clothes that fit. 

Another new Walmart product making a debut at CES is “Shop with Friends,” an AR shopping tool that lets customers share virtual outfits they create with their friends and then get feedback on their finds. The tool combines Walmart’s AI-powered virtual try-on tech, launched last year, with social features.

Image Credits: Walmart

CEO Doug McMillon referred to the suite of new products as something he called “adaptive retail” — that is, retail experiences that are personalized and flexible.

“While omnichannel retail has been around for decades, this new type of retail – adaptive retail – takes it a step further, said Suresh Kumar, global chief technology officer, and chief development officer, Walmart Inc., in a statement shared ahead of the CES keynote. “It’s retail that is not only e-commerce or in-store, but a single, unified retail experience that seamlessly blends the best aspects of all channels. And for Walmart, adaptive retail is rooted in a clear focus on people,” he said. 

The company touched on other ways it’s employing AI, as well.

Walmart’s Sam’s Club will introduce an AI and computer vision-powered technology that helps solve the problem of waiting in line for receipt verification when exiting the store. The pilot, currently running in 10 locations, will confirm members have paid for their items without requiring a store associate to check their charts. Instead, computer vision tech will capture images of customers’ carts and AI will speed the process of matching cart items to sales. Walmart expects to bring the tech to its nearly 600 clubs by year-end.

In another area, Walmart’s generative AI tool for store associates, My Assistant, will be expanded to 11 countries outside the U.S. in 2024, where it will work in employees’ native languages. Already, the tool has become available in Canada, Mexico, Chile, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Nicaragua and is on track for launches in India and South Africa. My Assistant helps employees with writing, summarizing large documents, and offering “thought starters” to spark creativity, Walmart says.

Image Credits: Walmart

On the matter of AI, McMillon stressed that the company wouldn’t prioritize the technology without considering the potential implications. Instead, Walmart’s “underlying principle is that we should use technology to serve people and not the other way around,” he said.

Still, McMillon admitted that AI will mean some jobs will be eliminated.

“No doubt some tasks will go away and some roles will change. And some of them should, like the ones that involve lifting heavy weights or doing repetitive tasks,” the exec explained. “As that’s happening, we’re designing new roles that our associates tell us are more enjoyable and satisfying, and also often result in higher pay. So we’re investing to help our associates transition to this shared future,” McMillon added.

Outside of AI, Walmart is looking to other new technology for faster deliveries. The company announced it’s expanding its drone delivery service in the Dallas-Ft. Worth metro to 1.8 million households, or 75% of the metroplex area. The deliveries, which take place in 30 minutes or less, are powered by Wing and Zipline. Walmart also notes that 75% of the 120,000 items in a Walmart Supercenter meet the size and weight requirements for drone delivery. To date, Walmart has done over 20,000 drone deliveries in its two-year trial.

This story is developing…

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