When Amazon launched its first Go store in 2018, the public lined up around the block to see the future of retail: a new experience where you could walk in, grab something off the shelf, and walk out. Sure, there were cameras on the ceiling and AI on computers tracking silently from above, but the promise was convenience through automation–maybe not The Jetsons, but a better 7/11 for certain.
Now Walmart has shared its version of the future of brick-and-mortar retail, the Intelligent Retail Lab, or IRL for short. Unlike Go, it doesn't feature any futuristic user experience. There's no automated checkout or similar whiz-bang head turner that people will Instagram about. Instead, IRL can track Walmart's inventory in real time with unprecedented efficiency, making sure every item on every shelf is always in stock.
Rethinking the entire shopping experience, as Amazon Go has done, was not on the table. "It's just not a priority for us right now, as we think about it," says Mike Hanrahan, CEO of IRL (which is technically a startup within Walmart itself). Instead, the IRL store has 1,500 cameras hanging from the ceiling to ensure that when you walk up to the meat section, there's in stock. "If you have really good inventory, it leads to a better managed store," says Hanrahan. And a better managed store is a more profitable one.