Walmart sees a shopping future filled with VR, AI and chatbots


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Lore, co-founder of Jet.com, at Jet’s Hoboken office in late 2015.


Ben Fox Rubin/CNET

These days, Amazon vacuums up most of the attention when it comes to retail innovation. Voice commerce? Check. Drone delivery? Check. Automated warehouses? Check.

But more than any other rival this year, Walmart seems to be challenging Amazon with aggressive efforts meant to show that it, too, is dreaming up new ways for people to shop.

At The Wall Street Journal’s annual tech conference, Marc Lore, Walmart’s head of US e-commerce, offered a broad vision for the future of retail that tied in virtual reality, voice shopping and artificial intelligence.

Walmart has spent the past year pushing into e-commerce, in hopes of catching up to Amazon there. The world’s largest brick-and-mortar retailer has been gobbling up online shopping sites, including Lore’s startup Jet.com, for which it paid $3.3 billion. It’s also been expanding into new areas, such as testing out using its associates to deliver packages and launching an e-commerce incubator called Store No. 8.

That work may be just the start. Lore started by mentioning smart speakers, such as the Google Home, which, incidentally, just launched a tie-in with Walmart.

“People use it for weather, use it for transportation, and a little bit of shopping,” Lore said. “And I think many people are maybe writing it off, saying it’s kind of clunky [or] I don’t think I’m going to shop that way.”

But, he added, rapid advancements in AI should drastically change these early interactions with voice assistants in about five to 10 years.

“You’re going to be able to talk to your car, your home, your phone in a very conversational way,” he continued, “that you would with somebody on the floor of a brick-and-mortar retail specialist.”

And the voice assistant would know you individually, as well as your parents. Eventually shoppers will be able to rattle off their grocery lists in the car — milk, eggs, bananas — and whether you want to pick up the items or have them delivered. For other items, people could, for example, start conversations with an assistant to figure out what kind of TV to order, Lore said.

That kind of convenience, sadly, could put some tech reviewers out of business, but it might bring about the future envisioned in the “Iron Man” movies, which featured the always-helpful Jarvis computer.

Lore said there could be a connection to VR too, with a person shopping for a tent able to transport directly to a campsite, where he could go inside the tent, walk around it and ask questions about it.

“That is where shopping is headed,” he said, “and it’s not as far away as people think.”

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