BENTONVILLE, Ark. — Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, is turning itself into a technology company.
With 3,000 stores by the end of this year filling online orders, it’s leveraging that infrastructure in 700 markets to do more. It’s developing, testing and adopting new technology to speed up store operations and complete online orders more quickly.
Self-driving delivery vehicles and a voice-based Ask Sam app were some of the new tools the company demonstrated Thursday to reporters gathered in Bentonville for Walmart’s annual shareholders meeting.
Walmart is focused on a single reason for its rapid adoption of technology — “to take the friction out” of shopping, even for those who like to shop, said Walmart U.S. CEO Greg Foran.
With 160 million transactions a week and 1.2 million employees in the U.S., there’s plenty of opportunity for friction. It’s not clear where technology is eventually taking the retail operator and the customer, Foran said, and innovations are being brought to his attention every week.
New proprietary computer vision technology being tested in the Sam’s Club Now on Lower Greenville in Dallas will be making its way into stores soon, said Eddie Garcia, chief product officer at Sam’s Club. Instead of trying to find the barcode on large bulky items in a shopping cart, the computer vision technology can see it and log it into the retailer’s Scan and Go app.
Sam’s Club started developing the computer vision technology last year, and Garcia said he believes the company is the only one using it in stores. The feature requires high-quality photos and isn’t perfect yet, Garcia said. It gets tripped up distinguishing between spinach and lettuce, for example, he said.
But overall, the technology is cutting down scan times by 70% in the Dallas lab store that opened last November.
Self-driving delivery van startup Gatik AI is part of a new hub-and-spoke system Walmart is creating. Online orders filled in a larger center in Bentonville are being delivered to a Walmart Neighborhood Market that’s more convenient for some shoppers.
Other regular routes may be serviced by self-driving vehicles at some point, said Tom Ward, Walmart’s senior vice president of digital operations. A vacant bank in Metairie, Louisiana, has become a pickup location for online orders filled by a Supercenter in New Orleans. Shoppers are picking up $1,000 worth of groceries a day there that Walmart wouldn’t have seen otherwise.
Employees are using Ask Sam, which they can load on their own phones, to speed up their ability to help a customer. It was launched in March and more than 30,000 employees are using it. They’ve logged in 1.5 million questions, Garcia said, and among the most frequent is, “Where are the Kind bars?”
Customers now can track their home deliveries on the Walmart grocery app the same way they watch an Uber driver on his way, Ward said.
Walmart’s online delivery and curbside pickup grocery business are expanding so fast that more capacity is needed in high volume markets, such as Dallas-Fort Worth. Customers all want the same popular time slots, Ward said.
So Walmart is working with Alert Innovation to create an automated system called Alphabot to help employees fill orders faster. It’s being tested in stores in Salem, New Hampshire; and Rogers, Arkansas; and is likely coming to Dallas soon, Ward said.