NEW DELHI :
The pandemic has forced the retail sector to accelerate the pace of technology adoption. In 2021, a report by market research and advisory firm Forrester noted that India’s overall retail growth had shrunk for the first time amid lockdowns but it did not slow down the online retail sector that still grew at 5%, adding $1.6 billion in sales. Srini Venkatesan, executive vice president of US Omni Tech at Walmart Tech Global , has seen the use of technology in retail up close. In an interview, Venkatesan explained the role artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality (AR) and other emerging technologies play in the retail sector. Edited excerpts:
How has India contributed to Walmart’s growth as a technology provider?
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 pool in the world. A lot of our innovations in the last mile, fulfilment and forecasting have come from India.
How has the pandemic impacted the retail sector and what role has AI played in it?
The pandemic caused safety concerns for consumers. The needs of customers have changed because of it (too). Online pickup and delivery have flourished. 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.
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. 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 fulfilment of orders too.
Online retail has experimented with AR and virtual reality (VR) but adoption has been limited. Do you expect this trend 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 point of view will not happen yet. It will come on their (consumers) terms and that will take time.
How can emerging technologies help retail improve visibility into the supply chain?
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. That is where Blockchain can help, not by managing inventory better, but by allowing for better smart contracts between suppliers and merchants and will help in the financial settlement.