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Last week, Walmart opened the Intelligent Retail Lab (IRL) – an AI-powered store to test new retail technologies – in New York. IRL can track Walmart’s inventory in real time, making sure every item on every shelf is always in stock. It is equipped with 1500 (!) cameras, sensors, and a big (glowing) data center sits behind glass, on display to the public. In an effort to make the tech less intimidating, a Welcome Center and information stations in the store give explanations on the technology in use. Finally, an interactive wall encourages shoppers to move around and experience a ‘fun demonstration of how technology reacts to body positioning’.

Another day, another futuristic retail store. And while some readers might be skeptical about the data collection (and rightly so!), here are two reasons why this is worth your attention:

Automation theater. Automation has burst out of factories into our daily lives. And the majority of people are worried about its impact on job displacement and economic inequality (Pew Research, 2018). Consumers are concerned, yet curious! One way to win their trust and prove you are using tech for human good? Create a spectacle out of it. Walmart is bringing to life immersive automation-fuelled in-person experiences to delight (and reassure) consumers. That’s what AUTOMATION THEATER is all about. If you’re going to introduce a new and intimidating technology to your customers, how can you make it playful?

Be (literally) transparent. 75% of consumers in 28 markets say they are very cautious about the privacy of their personal data (Accenture, 2019). For Walmart’s IRL to be successful, consumers must feel comfortable about how their data is being used and how they are being tracked. By putting the tech front and center, and leaving giant servers visible through a glass wall, Walmart is saying: ‘Look, we have nothing to hide’. School groups and organisations like Girls Who Code have been invited to tour the store. Today, there is little benefit (and no use) in trying to hide your processes. Smart brands are in a race to open up. Are you with them?

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