Loading...

'AI that personalizes online stores can help offline too': Srini Venkatesan, EVP, Walmart Tech Global

'AI that personalizes online stores can help offline too': Srini Venkatesan, EVP, Walmart Tech Global
10 Apr, 2022
Loading...

The pandemic has forced the retail sector to adopt technology faster than it already was. In 2021, a report by market research and advisory firm Forrester noted that India’s retail growth shrunk for the first time amid lockdowns and a drop in India’s gross domestic product, but this didn’t slow down the online retail sector, which still grew at 5%, adding $1.6 billion in sales. Srini Venkatesan, executive vice president, US Omni Tech at Walmart Tech Global, has seen the adoption of technology in retail up close. In an exclusive interview with Mint, Venkatesan explained the role artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality (AR) and other emerging technologies play in the retail sector. Edited excerpts:

Q. How has the pandemic impacted the retail sector and what role has AI played in it?

While we had been planning for changing customer preferences, it’s no secret that the pandemic accelerated our customers’ shift to omnichannel retail. The pandemic caused safety concerns for consumers. The needs of customers have changed because of it (too). Online pickup and delivery have flourished.

Loading...

AI has played a tremendous role in what we do, from offering delightful customer experiences to planning replenishment and flow of goods. AI has enabled us to know the inventory placement, where the demand is, and whether the inventory is reaching the right store for the audience.

Q. Can AI help offline retailers get customers back, the same way it has helped online ones get useful insights?

Customers are increasingly going to shop how, when, and where they want. It is important to focus on what customers want. Data and AI are enabling true one-to-one personalization at scale across digital channels. The same AI that we use for personalization in online stores is also helping offer personalized experiences in an (offline) store and understanding what is needed in that store. It doesn't matter what the channel is. The gap between offline and online is blurring into an omnichannel experience. A store may not be a single point for customers to shop anymore and can be used for the fulfillment of orders too. 

Loading...

Q. Online retail has experimented with AR and virtual reality (VR), but adoption has been limited. Do you expect that to change?

We are already using AR in our backroom for sorting products. You can point a phone in the backroom and it will use AR to highlight the case you are looking for. We are pushing for its use among our associates. We have a technology where you can put apparel on a model (too). Its adoption from a consumer will not happen yet. It will come on their terms and that will take time.

Q. Supply chain visibility can be a challenge. How can AI, blockchain, and robotics help?

Loading...

Moving merchandise from a supplier to a store or directly to a customer’s home is incredibly complex. It all starts with consumer demand in any geographical region. That is where AI and machine learning (ML) play an important part. If we know the consumer demand you will know the amount of inventory that needs to be placed at the location. The second thing is tracking and tracing inventory. We have a lot of technologies for efficient payment reflow, route optimization, and planning.

The third important thing is multi-vendor negotiation where you want to assess the damage when the product was shipped. Blockchain cannot help you manage inventory better, but will allow for better smart contracts between suppliers and merchants and will help in the financial settlement. For me, AI/ML is key to understanding demand, social shopping behaviors, flow, and router optimization to ensure we are not wasting anything in the process.

When you have a sufficient scale and you want a consistency of experience, that is where automation and robotics play an important role. It helps us be more predictable and consistent in what we deliver. 

Loading...

Q. How do you see the metaverse concept evolving, what’s your take on it?

We are looking at a lot of technology and the metaverse is something of interest. It all depends on how people would like to engage with us. Metaverse is still nascent and will evolve. I think we need to see more interest from people. 

On the other side, we are using digital twins, and AR/VR in the supply chain to see how we can operate and train better.

Loading...

Q. How has India contributed to Walmart's growth as a technology provider?

India’s talent market across a variety of technology areas is very advanced and we are already diving deep into this pool. Machine learning, data analytics, artificial intelligence, product expertise, cloud computing – you name it, and chances are there is a skilled community already thriving across India.  

I have been involved in India for six years and have seen it grow from a small footprint. India has been an integral part of what we do. Our location in Bengaluru has some of the best talent pools in the world. A lot of our innovations in the last mile, fulfillment, and forecasting have come from India.

Loading...