Walmart execs discuss new and expanded technology initiatives

by Kim Souza ([email protected]) 1,107 views 

Part of the Walmart booth at the 2024 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Technology, including drone delivery and artificial intelligence (AI), are part of what will drive growth and customer interactions at Walmart. That was the core theme from Walmart CEO Doug McMillon and other top execs this week at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas.

McMillon said advances in technology make it seem like anything is possible. He said the retailer’s roadmap is compelling as it continues to be a people-led, technology-empowered omnichannel retailer.

“We love what technology can do, but are we building it in a way that creates better careers? At the same time, it creates a better customer experience and business performance. We use technology to serve people, not the other way around,” McMillon said.

McMillon said Walmart worked with Microsoft to improve the online browsing and search functions of Walmart.com. He said a new generation AI-powered search experience provides users with a more convenient shopping trip. When shoppers search for items like “football watch party” the algorithm pulls up a wide range of snack foods and other party supplies so the shopper can find what they need with one search. The feature is now live on IOS Apple technology and will be coming to other platforms.

The AI search also uses location, search history and other contextual information to refine results for customers further. McMillon said the technology uses a combination of Walmart proprietary data and technology and large language models, including those available in Microsoft Azure OpenAI Service as well as retail-specific models built by Walmart. The new design serves up a curated list of the best items a shopper may seek.

Megan Crozier, chief merchant at Sam’s Club, said the wholesale club is now piloting AI that will automatically scan a member’s receipt if they used the Scan & Go option with their mobile phones. She said members will no longer have to stop at the door to have their receipts checked. They will merely pass through an archway, and their basket purchase is checked, allowing them to exit the club.

The Scan & Go feature already allows members to skip the checkout line and now the AI archway makes for a faster exit without having to stop at the door. Crozier said it’s being tested in nine clubs in the Dallas metro area, and one in Joplin, Mo., and it will live at all 600 clubs by the end of the year.

She said a record number of members are using the Scan & Go feature, making it the most widely used shopping app in U.S. brick-and-mortar retail. She said Sam’s is also using AI with a “Did you forget” prompt to remind members they may have not purchased an item they routinely buy.

Latriece Watkins, chief merchandising officer at Walmart U.S., said the retailer developed and is beta testing a new feature called “Shop with Friends,” which is a social commerce platform that uses underlying capabilities of augmented reality, virtual try-on, and other technologies. By utilizing Shop with Friends, customers will be able to mix and match apparel items to create virtual outfits on a model with similar sizing and shape. Users will then have the ability to share their fashion finds with friends and ask for their feedback. Watkins said the feature integrates mobile sharing applications that allow friends to communicate with the shopper and comment with heart emojis on their favorite looks. Watkins said the social shopping feature will become available to online shoppers in the coming weeks.

Also at CES, Walmart provided an update on its InHome business, which originated in 2019 as a service designed to streamline shopping and elevate convenience. The InHome program gives customers the opportunity to have their orders placed inside their homes or refrigerators. Walmart said it is now offering InHome Replenishment, an AI-powered feature that uses a personalized replenishment algorithm to anticipate and plan orders delivered directly to customer’s pantries and refrigerators.

The technology learns what customers purchase regularly, how much of these items they purchase and the frequency of purchase. With that information, a customer’s online shopping cart is filled with the right items at the appropriate time.

“So, when customers open their fridge for milk, instead of having nothing, they have something,” said Whitney Pegden, vice president, New Propositions and Pre-Transactions, Walmart U.S.

Pedgen said customers will have complete control, and they can skip items not needed, add new items to the order, and make adjustments to the delivery dates and times as their busy schedules dictate.

“The new replenishment service will automate the entire shopping experience, from basket-building to delivery. We’ll be excited for customers to try this new innovation when it launches,” Pedgen said.

Prathibha Rajeshekhar, who oversees automation and innovation for U.S. stores and supply chain at Walmart, also took the stage at CES to discuss expansion of drone delivery in the Dallas metro area. She said Walmart has been conducting drone deliveries with 37 hubs located in seven states completing more than 20,000 customer deliveries. Rajeshekhar said 75% of the 120,000 items in a Walmart supercenter meet the size and weight requirements for drone delivery.

Working with partners Zipline and Wing, Walmart said it has expanded the drone delivery to more than 30 towns and municipalities in Dallas-Fort Worth – or to about 75% of households in the metro area. The delivery distance is 10 miles from the hub and the deliveries are received within 30 minutes and as fast as 10 minutes.

“Drone delivery is not just a concept of the future, it’s happening now and will soon be a reality for millions of additional Texans,” she said.

McMillon said Walmart’s focus on technology is deliberate and necessary to usher in the next era of retail. He reiterated that technology does not come before people in his organization, but it will be used to enhance operations for Walmart’s employees, customers and business outcomes.