Walmart has embraced progressive test-and-learn thinking to stay on the cutting edge of technology that’s changing the world and apply it in the way the company works with customers and builds its organization over time, said Walmart Labs’ vice president - global data and analytics platform Ray Boyle while speaking at the Path to Purchase Summit in May. 

“Nearly every aspect of our business either is or has the opportunity to be transformed through data science and technology,” Boyle said.

On the demand side of the business, merchants tasked with making sure their category assortment is just right across every store as well as for every order placed for pickup or delivery are benefiting from technology to help them make better forecasts. According to Boyle, the intricacy of these complex mathematics problems can only be solved effectively with the help of heavy-duty machine analytics.

In the back-end of the store — an area of the business that Boyle said hasn’t seen a lot of innovation for some 50 years — Walmart is beginning to equip employees with technology such as computer vision and artificial intelligence. “Fast unloader” technology, for example, helps make sense of trucks filled end-to-end with unorganized pallets, identifying priorities and cross-referencing those with current on-shelf availability to calculate how items should come off the system, reducing inefficiencies, waste and shrink.

Technology also helps get an item from the back of the store onto the shelf, with Walmart’s Oscar robot rolling around the aisles of some 400 stores and collecting on-shelf information it then relays to the supply chain, to the back of the store, and to the handheld devices of employees stocking shelves so problems can be addressed faster.

“The investments that we make in technology are really closely married to increasing the work we do with customers and making that relationship stronger but also really about making sure that our associates have the tools and capabilities they need to be [better],” Boyle said.

That includes the series of Walmart Academies the company has built up across its organization, using virtual reality training to prepare employees to use all the new technology that is being added to the workflow.

With responsibility for transformation across the enterprise, Boyle doesn’t regularly work with manufacturers, but from his vantage point noted three important areas of collaborative focus:

  1. Data: “The data that we supply to each other is fundamental,” Boyle said. Data about a product is one example: making sure it’s labeled correctly on the website, with the right keywords and the right description, and easy for shoppers to discover. Another is the data that’s required for all the planning and decision making that happens around the supply chain, from packaging to the palletization process. “The terms and all the different information that goes into how the company functions is really taking place at that interface between Walmart and the rest of the world,” Boyle said.
  2. Supply chain: “It’s not really a Walmart supply chain, it’s a total inventory supply chain,” Boyle said. The level of inventory held in stores is going way down, so the precision of the way that the retailer and suppliers work together to share data to make sure people have more information and depth on the forecast and orders, and making sure the flow of that hits in a precise “on time, in full” environment is becoming more and more critical to the way that the industry functions and that supply chain comes together.
  3. Walmart Media Group: “We’ve always thought of ourselves as a retail organization … but as the company builds up and invests in data assets and the way that we use information there’s opportunities that are emerging that are really interesting,” Boyle said. WMG has an intense intelligence around how people are behaving in Walmart’s ecosystem and is one place that partnership will grow pretty rapidly over the next few years, he said.