Walmart Uses Predictive AI To Avoid E-Grocery Substitution Shame


With e-grocery options that rely on in-store picking, substitutions are still something of a sticking point for many shoppers. On Thursday (June 24), Walmart announced its solution: Rather than relying on human intelligence to make the switch, the company will offer the ability for in-store shoppers to use artificial intelligence (AI) to more accurately fulfill customers’ orders when the requested items are out of stock.

The machine learning-enabled tool looks at a wide range of factors — including product features, what is in stock, what customers tend to choose and what the specific customer has chosen in the past — to make a more informed decision than the picker would be able to make on their own in the moment. The feature then points in-store shoppers to the item’s location, allowing them to quickly retrieve it. The system also gives customers the option to view substitutions and approve or reject them before receiving their order, helping the AI learn. So far, the company reports that more than 95 percent of the feature’s suggestions are approved.

“The decision on how to substitute is complex and highly personal to each customer,” Srini Venkatesan, executive vice president of Walmart Global Tech, commented in the announcement. “If the wrong choice is made, it can negatively impact customer satisfaction and increase costs.”

This is not the first time such a solution has been deployed. In March, “taste intelligence company” Halla, announced the latest iteration of its Halla Substitute feature, which also takes into account the customer’s order history and real-time stock inventory information to make intelligent suggestions to those fulfilling online grocery orders. The company points to findings that more than a fifth of grocery customers switched to purchasing from a competing store when frustrated by out-of-stock items at their first choice, noting that smart suggestions can circumvent this frustration.

“When grocers use Halla in their eCommerce experiences, shoppers feel like their grocer really understands what they want, and why they selected a particular item,” Henry Michaelson, co-founder and chief technology officer of Halla, said in a statement. “And because Halla Substitute eliminates the hassle for the shopper, customers are delighted, not disappointed, by substitutions.”

Reports of poorly made substitutions have been circulating for years now, but they have become more common since the start of the pandemic, with more shoppers trying e-grocery options than ever before. One survey found that when items were unavailable, only 17 percent of grocery shoppers reported being able to swap out all out-of-stock items for an acceptable substitute, and a third of shoppers could not find acceptable replacements for any of their out-of-stock items.

Social media groups and pages have emerged for shoppers to share their substitution horror stories, commiserating about the most ridiculous swaps and suggestions they have received — replacing tea bags with beans, baking soda with candles and every vegetable with broccoli.

“I ordered a vegetarian three-course meal from Tesco. They replaced it with a single bag of spinach,” one United Kingdom shopper recalled. “The driver and I couldn’t stop laughing when we spotted it.”

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