Walmart is responding to the unique challenges out-of-stocks create in grocery ecommerce through the application of AI. While shoppers can’t choose their own substitutes when an item in an online order is unavailable, the solution aims to predict what they would have selected to help pickers make the right choice.
“For example, imagine you’re a personal shopper looking for cherry yogurt for an online grocery order,” said Srini Venkatesan, EVP, Walmart Global Tech in a statement. “But when you get to the yogurt aisle, there’s no cherry yogurt left. You see strawberry, raspberry and blueberry yogurt — would the customer like one of those options? Perhaps another flavor, like vanilla? Fat-free? Skip the yogurt all together? How can a personal shopper decide which is the next best option for a customer they may never have met?”
The impetus for this technology was the surge in ecommerce demand generated by the pandemic, which caused popular items to sell out quickly. Personal shoppers previously used a manual process to determine the right substitution, but with 100 different factors that can go into every decision this could be extremely time consuming at scale.
The new AI tech crunches hundreds of variables, including size, type, brand, price, aggregate shopper data, individual customer preference and current inventory, in real time to determine the next best available item. It also preemptively asks the customer to approve or reject the selected item, then takes the feedback into consideration to improve accuracy for future recommendations.
“We continue to iterate and enhance this technology, and our customers are responding positively,” said Venkatesan. ” The best part is, throughout the entire process the system is learning and getting smarter based on customer input and actions. Our goal is never to be out of stock and never to have substitutions. But when it happens, the technology we’ve built helps ensure customers get the next best thing.”
Walmart has been making significant investments in AI for the past several years. Highlights include giving associates apps that let them immediately place orders for out-of-stock items, and a partnership with Microsoft that focuses on cloud and AI innovation. Both initiatives launched in 2018.