Buying things in bulk at wholesale retailers can be an all-day affair. Sam’s Club, the store chain owned by Walmart, is trying to make that time shorter: by using artificial intelligence to scan shoppers’ carts so they no longer have to show a receipt at the exit upon checking out.
“Eliminating even the few seconds it takes to scan a receipt at the exit door is well worth it,” Megan Crozier, an executive vice president at Walmart, announced onstage this week at the company’s presentation for the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
It has long been common practice at stores where bulk items are sold — like Costco, Sam’s Club and BJ’s Wholesale Club — for store employees to check customer receipts at the exit. But this has also led to accusations of racial bias, with some customers saying they were subject to more thorough checks than other shoppers.
At some retailers, like Sam’s Club and Costco, showing a receipt has long been mandatory for everyone leaving the store.
But at other chains, where the practice is less consistently enforced, there have been accusations of racial bias. In 2018, the home improvement chain Lowe’s announced it was suspending its receipt-checking practice after a Black customer said that he had been asked to show a receipt at two separate locations and that a cashier at one of the locations had told him employees there didn’t typically check receipts because the neighborhood was predominantly white.
Costco, on its website, says the practice exists “to double-check that the items purchased have been correctly processed by our cashiers.” The explanation continues: “It’s our most effective method of maintaining accuracy in inventory control.”
This can be a frustrating experience for shoppers, who often have to wait in two lines after shopping: the checkout and then the exit. One response to this has been the addition of self-checkout lines.
According to a video presented by Walmart executives, Sam’s Club will now have customers go through a gate-like portal rather than having an employee stand at the door and check individual receipts — an innovation that Ms. Crozier described as reimagining the future of retail. The portal is equipped with what Walmart said in a news release was “computer vision and digital technology” to verify purchases.
The technology is currently at 10 locations, but Ms. Crozier told the audience that the company hoped to make the change at all of its roughly 600 locations by the end of the year.
“What’s interesting about it is that, finally, we might actually see artificial intelligence at work in our day-to-day lives,” James R. Bailey, a professor at the George Washington University School of Business, said, adding, “And people say, ‘Well, your phone does this.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, that’s just computing speed.’ You know, that’s just this, that and the other. I don’t see it. I don’t see the advance. What Sam’s Club is doing is actually something that is tangible and visible.”
The use of artificial intelligence is becoming increasingly prevalent in the retail sector, especially since the height of the pandemic, which changed the way customers interact with brick-and-mortar stores. Walmart already uses artificial intelligence for inventory management and as a way of anticipating customer demand. (In an example discussed at the Consumer Electronics Show, Doug McMillon, Walmart’s chief executive, gave a preview of Walmart’s evolved home delivery service, which will use artificial intelligence to predict when deliveries will be needed based on tracked shopping habits.)
In recent years, Amazon rolled out its “Just Walk Out” technology, which uses A.I. to allow customers to exit a store with their purchases and skip checkout lines entirely as their accounts are automatically charged, though this year Amazon closed eight of its Amazon Go stores, indicating that retailer is still trying to find its footing in the physical store space.
Walmart obliquely made a reference to the technology in unveiling its own attempts at reducing the friction between shopping and exiting.
“It’s one thing to enable this easy kind of exit tech in a small footprint store for a handful of items,” Ms. Crozier said. “You’ve all seen it. You can get an apple. A cheese stick. Maybe something as big as a box of cereal. But we’re doing it at scale.”