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At this Walmart, AI and cameras are minding the store

  • Thousands of cameras are key to the artificial intelligence system at Walmart's "Intelligent Retail Lab" in a Long Island store.
  • It's the retail giant's biggest attempt so far to digitize the physical store.
  • The goal is to monitor the store in real time so workers can quickly react to replenish products or fix other problems.

Levittown, N.Y. - Inside one of Walmart's busiest Neighborhood Market grocery stores, high-resolution cameras suspended from the ceiling point to a table of bananas. They can tell how ripe the bananas are from their color. When a banana starts to bruise, the cameras send an alert to a worker. Normally, that task would rely on the subjective assessment of a human who probably doesn't have time to inspect every piece of fruit.

The thousands of cameras are a key feature of Walmart's Intelligent Retail Lab, which officially opens inside this 50,000-square-foot store on Thursday. It's the retail giant's biggest attempt so far to digitize the physical store.

Walmart envisions using the cameras, combined with other technology like sensors on shelves, to monitor the store in real time so its workers can quickly react to replenish products or fix other problems. The technology, shown first to The Associated Press, will also be able to track when shelves need to be restocked or if shopping carts are running low. It can spot spills and even detect when more cash registers need to be opened before long lines start forming.

Walmart Lab Store
Dozens of cameras hang above an aisle at a Walmart Neighborhood Market in Levittown, N.Y. Mark Lennihan / AP

Walmart's deep dive into artificial intelligence in its physical store comes as Amazon raised the stakes in the grocery business with its purchase of Whole Foods Market nearly two years ago. That has put more pressure on Walmart and other traditional retailers like Kroger and Albertson's to pour money into technology in their stores.

At the same time, they're trying to keep food prices down and manage expenses. Amazon has been rolling out cashier-less Amazon Go stores, which have shelf sensors that track the 1,000 products on their shelves.

Walmart's U.S. online sales are still a fraction of Amazon's online global merchandise empire, which reached $122.98 billion last year. Walmart hopes to start scaling some of the new technology at other stores in the next six months, with an eye toward lower costs and thus lower prices. As the shopping experience improves, the retailer expects to see higher sales.

"We really like to think of this store as an artificial intelligence factory, a place where we are building these products, experiences, where we are testing and learning," said Mike Hanrahan, CEO of Walmart's Intelligent Retail Lab and co-founder of Jet.com, purchased by Walmart three years ago. A glass-enclosed data center at the back of the store houses nine cooling towers, 100 servers and other computer equipment that processes all the data.

Walmart Lab Store
The store's massive data center where nine cooling towers, 100 servers and other computer equipment process 1.6 terrabytes of data per second coming from cameras and sensors. Mark Lennihan / AP

Hanrahan said the cameras are programmed to focus primarily on the products and shelves right now. They don't recognize faces, determine the ethnicity of a person picking up a product or track the movement of shoppers, he said. Some other companies have recently started experimenting with store-shelf cameras that try to guess shoppers' ages, genders and moods.

There are signs throughout the Neighborhood Market educating shoppers about how the store is being used as a lab. Still, the cameras could raise privacy concerns.

"Machine learning fundamentally finds and matches patterns," said Steven M. Bellovin, a computer science professor at Columbia University and a privacy expert, who hasn't seen the new Walmart AI Lab. But he said companies run into trouble when they start to match behavior to a specific customer. Hanrahan said Walmart has made sure to protect shoppers' privacy and emphasized that no cameras are at the pharmacy, in front of the rest rooms or in employee breakrooms.

Walmart Lab Store
Mike Hanrahan, CEO of Walmart's Intelligent Retail Lab, at a kiosk that explains the store's high tech for customers. Mark Lennihan / AP

The lab is Walmart's second in a physical store. Last year, Walmart's Sam's Club opened a 32,000 square foot lab store, a quarter of the size of a typical Sam's Club. The lab is testing new features related to the Scan & Go App, which lets customers scan items as they shop and then buy from their phones, skipping the checkout line.

The retail labs are among the projects from Walmart's new incubation arm, created after the Jet.com acquisition as a way for the discounter to shape the future of retail. They follow the launch of Jetblack, a shopping-by-text service aimed at affluent consumers in New York. Another incubation project was Spatial&, a VR tech company. As part of the launch, it's bringing tractor-trailers to some of Walmart parking lots so customers can experience DreamWorks Animation's "How to Train Your Dragon" through virtual reality.

Hanrahan said the company is embracing the labs in stores to better understand the real ways that technology affects customers and workers. It also wants to educate shoppers. Walmart has made a point to not hide the technology, and small educational kiosks are set up throughout the Neighborhood Market.

Despite the signs and visible cameras, many shoppers, including Marcy Seinberg from Wantagh, New York, didn't seem to notice or care. "I am not bothered by it," Seinberg said. "If technology saves me money, I would be interested."