What does a real-life "store of the future" look like? Should it work without cashiers like an Amazon Go store, or should it be something else? Walmart is trying to answer that question with its new IRL offering at its Neighborhood Market in Levittown, New York, while thumbing its nose at Amazon at the same time.

IRL, Walmart says, stands for Intelligent Retail Lab, but as all gamers and even some non-gamers know, that acronym is commonly used to mean "in real life," as opposed to in an online, virtual, non-real world. Walmart introduced the IRL concept to an existing and already busy store, while Amazon created its Go stores from scratch, starting out as a proof of concept and a showcase for its technology. As if to underscore the difference, IRL CEO Mike Hanrahan uses the word "real" three times in succession in his video introducing the concept, saying it's a "real store, real customers, real sales." In case you missed the point, in Walmart's written statement about the store, he says this:

"You can't be overly enamored with the shiny object element of AI. There are a lot of shiny objects out there that are doing things we think are unrealistic to scale and probably, long-term, not beneficial for the consumer."

So what's Walmart's vision for a store of the future? While Amazon Go is a very straightforward concept--there are no cashiers and no need to scan purchases, you just scan your mobile phone on the way in, put things in a shopping bag and go--Walmart's IRL is more nuanced. Cameras and sensors throughout the store watch the shelves, but not, as at Amazon Go, to record which items shoppers are selecting so they can be billed for them. Instead, Hanrahan says in the video, "They allow us to see if we need to bring meat out from the backroom refrigerators. They also allow us to see if meat has been sitting too long on that shelf." 

So the point of monitoring the store is better inventory control--you're less likely to find an empty shelf when you look for an item to purchase--and fresher perishable items. For store employees, it means they no longer need to walk the store to see which items need restocking, although robots have already been doing that job at some Walmart stores for over a year. Hanrahan says the technology will free employees to "engage more with our customers." Although, of course, one can easily see how the same technology could also be used to help stores operate with fewer employees.

Learning to love AI.

But the real point of the IRL store seems to be to help customers get used to the idea of shopping in an AI-laden environment. As Hanrahan points out, most of us have been interacting with artificial intelligence on a daily basis, even if we don't notice it--every time we chat with support online or browse Netflix or even search Walmart's website, we're dealing with AI that is making predictions about what we want. Still, chances are that some customers who patronize Walmart's bricks-and-mortar stores aren't particularly aware of AI and may not be that comfortable with it. 

To help them get comfortable, the IRL store highlights the technology instead of hiding it. Thus, the bank of servers that crank out 1.6 terabytes of data per second are not hidden away in some backroom but visible to shoppers, behind a Plexiglas wall. Interactive kiosks throughout the store teach shoppers about AI. For fun, there's also a large "interactive wall" that uses AI to mirror shoppers' body movements and positions.

Which version of retail AI is likely to prevail in the future--Walmart's IRL or Amazon's Go concept? About two and a half years after launching the first cashier-less store, Amazon now has 10 Amazon Go stores operating in Seattle, Chicago, and San Francisco. 7-Eleven is experimenting with a Dallas store that offers a cashier-less checkout option. And despite Hanrahan's disparaging "shiny object" comment, Walmart, through its Sam's Club subsidiary, has also opened a cashier-less store.

As for the newer IRL concept, if Walmart has any plans for expanding it to other stores, it isn't telling anyone. Its statement simply says this: "One day, the efficiencies being explored in IRL could lead to enhancements that help associates all over the country in the future." I guess we'll have to wait and see.

Published on: Apr 27, 2019
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