The Supply Side: Walmart using IoT on food quality, sustainability efforts

by Kim Souza ([email protected]) 2,465 views 

The retail sector is starting to use internet of things (IoT) technology with various applications. Sanjay Radhakrishnan, vice president of global technology at Walmart, recently said the company manages more than 7 million unique IoT data points across its massive U.S. store footprint.

“Every day, this network of connected devices sends almost 1.5 billion messages regarding temperature, operating functions and energy use. To help manage this massive volume, the IoT team within Walmart Global Tech has built proprietary software that uses advanced algorithms to detect anomalous events in real-time and take action to fix issues quickly,” Radhakrishnan said.

At its purest definition, he said IoT is when different pieces of technology talk to one another. Consumers use IoT within their homes when they tell their phone to turn on the lights or power down the television. He said Walmart is doing the same thing with all of its 4,600-plus stores.

Radhakrishnan said one IoT application helps the retailer keep ice cream frozen and milk cold. He said food quality is crucial because it’s essential to good customer experiences. He said the global technology division is working with the real estate teams to ensure food quality is top of mind through monitoring Walmart’s refrigeration units with IoT systems.

“Our IoT application not only monitors the temperature of the individual unit to ensure proper food safety standards but also looks at how the equipment is performing and takes proactive steps towards maintenance repairs to reduce the cost and downtime caused by equipment failure. If the signal received requires additional information, it is sent to the maintenance team through a cloud application where the team will triage the issue and determine the best course of action. That could include leveraging a store associate to take additional steps, repairing an IT connection issue, submitting a work order and getting a technician on-site to look at the unit or by making changes remotely to the equipment,” he explained.

During the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, he said the company adjusted store hours practically overnight to allow associates time to restock and sanitize. He said adjusting the “set-back” times for HVAC and refrigeration cases on-site would’ve required Walmart to spend hundreds of hours to manually change the equipment scheduling in each individual store in the middle of the pandemic.

But with IoT, Radhakrishnan said the retailer was able to use its demand response team to make changes across multiple stores and geographic locations simultaneously, saving time and reducing expenses. As restrictions lift and store hours adjust by site, Walmart uses its internal systems to modify equipment scheduling accordingly.

“Efficiently and effectively managing energy consumption in response to internal and external factors requires constant monitoring to make adjustments without impacting the customer experience. We’re able to use IoT sensors on our stores’ HVAC and energy systems to remotely monitor and respond to the community energy consumption needs quickly and with minimal impact to our customers’ shopping experience,” he said.

He said using a solution Walmart calls “demand response,” the retailer can reduce energy consumption to any of its U.S. stores for a set amount of time and then have systems in place to automatically return the equipment to the usual operating standards. He said lowering energy use in stores that are idled or darkened allows Walmart to reduce energy consumption and lower its utility costs without impacting the customer experience.

“Another benefit of this application of IoT is the sustainability implications, where in partnership with local communities, we can lower our use of the energy grid in response to high demand needs like blackouts and brownouts,” Radhakrishnan said.

He said Walmart is just getting started with applying IoT within its business. The retailer has an IoT road map that will include other equipment, other algorithms and data processing, and more locations.

“As we continue to connect more assets, we will apply our experience to reduce our energy consumption further while increasing the value to our customers. We will continue to focus on what our customers need most, like high food quality and a positive shopping experience,” Radhakrishnan said.

McKnight Consulting Group published a white paper last year that indicated the retail sector as one of IoT’s biggest beneficiaries. The report said IoT analytics could help with better design of products and services. Companies can also use it in the supply chain to track products. With more smart devices in consumers’ hands, such as smartwatches, smart televisions, refrigerators, phones and digital home assistants, McKnight said the IoT is also an important customer service strategy.

McKnight said IoT analytics connects the shopper’s digital life to the physical location or product experience in the store. The report suggests that retailers who accurately use IoT analytics will have a better shot at ensuring they have the optimal amount of every product on hand at all times. IoT analytics is predictive and prescriptive, so retailers don’t have to remember to order more stock, nor estimate demand and risk mismatching supply and demand, the report states.

McKnight said that Bloomingdale’s, Nordstrom and other high-end retailers use smart fitting rooms with smart mirrors equipped with wall-mounted tablets and screens.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Supply Side section of Talk Business & Politics focuses on the companies, organizations, issues and individuals engaged in providing products and services to retailers. The Supply Side is managed by Talk Business & Politics and sponsored by Propak Logistics.