Walmart Leans into AI, Retools Site to Compete with Amazon

Walmart has rolled out a new online look in a bid to catch up with Amazon, simultaneously advancing its conversational AI capabilities using OpenAI’s GPT-4 and Google’s BERT. Starting last year, generative AI has reportedly been a major initiative of the Arkansas-based retailer in key areas including search, supply chain management and virtual shopping, although it is only now that the company is emphasizing the tools to customers by expanding its offerings like Text to Shop. The text- or voice-activated way to add items to shopping carts is one of nearly two dozen conversational AI experiences at Walmart.

“We focus on building a natural language understanding capability that is retail-specific,” Walmart Global Tech VP of emerging technologies Desirée Gosby told VentureBeat, explaining that the company features “a platform that has allowed teams across Walmart to build conversational experiences for about five years.”

Gosby explained that generative AI represents “as big a shift as mobile, in terms of how our customers are going to expect to interact with us.”

The company has been building on various large language models, using them as the foundation for an AI home brew. Currently, it’s focused on using chatbots for advanced problem-solving expressed through natural language.

Customer service appears to be a job category exposed to tech erosion. VentureBeat’s interview comes days after Walmart laid off 2,000 warehouse workers at a time when it is increasing its use of robotics. Walmart “aims for 65 percent of stores to be automation serviced by 2026,” according to Yahoo Finance.

The global retail giant just wrapped its spring investor community meeting, April 4-5 in Florida. Yahoo Finance says “it was not immediately clear” whether the company had more layoffs planned. While the company cited global hard times for staff consolidation, robotics and AI are costly to implement, and it seems more a reallocation of funds.

Walmart’s 2023 annual shareholder meeting will be virtual-only, and is scheduled for May 31.

The retail giant is the nation’s largest private employer, with 1.6 million U.S. workers and 2.1 million globally, according to its website. By comparison, Amazon has 1.1 million U.S. employees and more than 1.5 million worldwide. According to eMarketer, Amazon had a market share of 37.8 percent of U.S. online sales in 2022, while Walmart’s share was 5.4 percent.

CNBC says Walmart’s website and mobile app have been refreshed in an effort to gain market share from Amazon at a time when shoppers are spending “less on discretionary purchases, such as clothes and TVs” and “online sales now drive more of Walmart’s business after a COVID pandemic-fueled push.”

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