Walmart “IRL” concept investigates the future of retail through AI


Walmart is investigating the future of retail with the launch of the Intelligent Retail Lab (or “IRL”), a concept store where AI will be playing a major role at delivering convenience and relevancy.

For this concept launch, led by Walmart’s tech incubator Store N8, the retailer transformed one of its busiest locations, in Levittown, New York, into a 50,000 sq ft space where features such as intelligence-enabled cameras and interactive displays aim to enhance customer experience.

“The scope of what we can do operationally is so exciting,” says Mike Hanrahan, CEO of IRL. “Technology enables us to understand so much more – in real time – about our business. When you combine all the information we’re gathering in IRL with Walmart’s 50-plus years of expertise in running stores, you can create really powerful experiences that improve the lives of both our customers and associates.”

IRL is set up to gather information about what is happening inside the store, and how consumers are behaving, through a variety of sensors, cameras and processors, all of which are connected through a powerful data processing center.

The initial focus is on product inventory and availability, says Hanrahan. In this instance, an example sees a combination of cameras and analytics that will automatically trigger out-of-stock notifications to an internal app when a shelf is empty, alerting staff of the need for restocking. Other applications will look at practical solutions that keep the store running smoothly, such as making sure shopping carts are available and registers are open.

This is because at this initial phase the main focus will be on data-gathering and learning about the technology and its potentials and pitfalls, rather than implementing it across operations in haste. “You can’t be overly enamored with the shiny object element of AI,” added Hanrahan. “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.”

Adding an element of science fiction to the whole experience, customers will be able to glimpse through a glass wall at the store’s large data center, which will process 1.6tb of data per second – which can be compared to downloading three year’s worth of music (27,000 hours) each second. They can also become better informed about the features being tested in store through information stations scattered throughout. Lastly, an AI-enabled wall adds an element of play by imitating shopper movements as they walk by.

The Data Center inside Walmart’s IRL store

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