At the Walmart Supercenter in Secaucus, New Jersey, some 750 employees have been interacting with artificial intelligence on a daily basis for the past few years. Retail workers use an AI and augmented-reality app to quickly and remotely gauge what needs restocking, reducing trips between the store aisles and the backroom. It helps cut the time it takes workers to manage the backroom inventory by a third, according to the company.
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AI also suggests optimal product placements on shelves, while a new feature under development will soon prioritize workers’ tasks according to urgency.
The technology can be directly useful to shoppers, too. If a customer asks where the orange juice is located, workers, using voice or text, can query an app that is powered by natural language processing, a subfield of AI that enables the app to understand questions like humans. Walmart says its employees ask the app a total of more than 600,000 questions each week, on average.
In the next five years or so, about 65% of Walmart’s stores will be serviced by automation, according to the company, which has invested billions into making its stores and supply chains more efficient.
Walmart is also the biggest private employer in the world, employing 2.1 million retail workers globally. So it has a big say in how AI is changing jobs.
Retail jobs are evolving
At a press tour of the tech features and gadgets used throughout the Secaucus Walmart, Ivy Barney, the company’s senior vice president of operations, was quick to say that the store’s 750-employee workforce hasn’t been reduced.
Instead, retail workers’ jobs have evolved into new roles including “digital shoppers” and “hosts” for the cashier-less registers, with additional new roles in receiving and other operations at the back of the store, she said.
Amid the AI frenzy, lots of predictions about massive job loss are being made. Even with new technologies changing the nature of retail work, US employment in the sector is nearly back to pre-pandemic levels, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Of course, there’s still the question of whether technology is making the job better. Earlier this month, Walmart said it was reducing starting pay for some new hires.
The limitations of AI tools for retail workers
New software doesn’t always transfer well from the lab to the real world. The app for store-related questions, for instance, is only available in English. With more than 5,000 stores globally, Walmart has a highly diverse staff and customer base. That raises questions about how effective these tools can be for non-English-speaking workers and customers, including in Secaucus, with its rich immigrant population and ethnic diversity.
For Walmart, the biggest challenge is scaling the technologies, said Sanjay Radhakrishnan, senior vice president of technology at Walmart. But the retail giant is using worker feedback and new data to improve the AI models powering the various tools.