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Tech enhances network agility & supply chain resilience

AI is one of the biggest trends in shaping the future of retail. It helps predict customer demand, manages supplier backorders, and optimizes inventory stock levels, says Balu Chaturvedula, VP-Technology, Core Services Supply Chain Tech, Walmart Global Tech India.

We will have to take a relook at the way the supply chains (global, national and local) operate after the COVID-19 crisis. What changes do you see happening?

As we all know, times have been unprecedented. Our vision is to help customers save money so that they can live better, and supply chain plays an important role. The initial stages of the lockdown saw retailers dealing with a significant demand for essential products. The ability to manage demand has never been this important. Implementing multi-scenario planning and real-time operations can help companies to manage the dynamic demand and predict the future requirements.

Technology can benefit companies with improved network agility, enhanced supply chain resilience, reduction in inventory carrying cost, and improved product traceability. The improvement initiative allows companies to provide better insights and broadcast real-time inventory information using a structured protocol.

Will Big Data, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning play a greater role from now onwards in both the supply chains and retail industry? How? What is the role of data scientists in all of this?

Today businesses are leveraging Big Data, AI and ML to transform their supply chain operations. AI is one of the biggest trends in shaping the future of retail. It helps predict customer demand, manages supplier backorders, and optimizes inventory stock levels. Incorporating AI into the retail world can synchronize digital and physical shopping streams and empower flexibility in logistics networks. AI is also enabling retailers to embrace deep learning to streamline processes, automate customer experiences and enable intelligent product searches.

Data science is now a part of our everyday operations and business planning. Walmart Global Tech India has a robust team of data scientists who are helping Walmart merchandisers figure out assortment planning, price and space planning and proactively driving a lot of ‘what-if’ scenarios. We have all the data and insights. But to put it into practice we need the human intervention of our data scientists.

The Internet of Things is set to take off with one estimate putting the very upper limit at 500 billion IoT devices by 2030. How will this affect the supply chain, warehouse and shopping experience?

IoT allows retailers to provide a curated purchase experience, informed service engagements and drive efficiency to transform the retail industry. It is accelerating the development of the entire retail supply chain and helps bridge the online-offline experience gap to ensure seamless omnichannel shopping journey for customers. By leveraging IoT, retailers today can gain insights on customers (purchasing journey, interests, wish lists, preferences, purchases etc.) to deliver more personalized content and offers. IoT enhances the shopping experience by offering fresh produce/frozen food stored under optimum conditions, ensuring item availability and by managing the ambience within the store. It also makes power management efficient and reduces our carbon footprint.

By collecting real-time data from smart devices and sensors installed across Walmart facilities, IoT enables monitoring, reactive and predictive maintenance capabilities. Not only does this make store operations more efficient, but also cuts food spoilage and optimizes resources.

Warehouses with IoT enabled devices and storage can manage items efficiently. Supply chain supported by AI and IoT can accelerate the entire value chain and facilitate a faster service cycle. These processes will enable efficiency in supply chain and warehouse management.

What about the use of emerging technologies like blockchain?

Before block chain technology, supply chain lacked transparency and connectivity. Today, it can provide a single source of information about any products. Blockchain enables a customer and seller to directly transact with each other without passing through any form of transaction or third-party medium. The data can be used to form an analysis of consumer activity, including efficient shipment tracking, etc. This allows the retail management, store employees, and warehouse workers to track the shipped item and know where it is at any given time.

Walmart utilized blockchain to bring unparalleled transparency to the food supply chain with ‘Hyperledger Fabric’. This system allowed better traceability and helped business to act faster and protect the livelihoods of farmers by only discarding produce from the affected farms in case of a food-borne disease.

We recently ran two projects to test the system. One project was about tracing mangoes sold in Walmart’s US stores and the other aimed to trace pork sold in its China stores. For pork in China, it allowed uploading certificates of authenticity to the blockchain, bringing more trust to a system where it used to be a serious issue. And for mangoes in the US, the time needed to trace their source went from 7 days to just 2.2 seconds!

Walmart can now trace the origin of over 25 products from five different suppliers using a system powered by Hyperledger Fabric. We now plan to roll out the system to more products and categories in the near future.

What specific things has Walmart Global Tech done during the COVID-19 crisis?

Our priority has always been to help people save money and live better. During the COVID-19 crisis, it’s even more important for customers to have a safe, seamless experience. We had to take care of those who are at risk within our teams and communities, as well as abide by local guidelines.

We started working on how to make time slots in online grocery more user-friendly and widely available. We changed our processes immediately with the massive spike in demand as we saw customers booking slots as far as seven days ahead, which left no slots for immediate purchases. So, we reduced delivery sign-up options from seven days to two days to help ensure we could handle the demand. As we increased our capacity, we were able to expand our time slots back to seven days which helped us to provide an easy, contactless way to order and pick up groceries.

At WGTI we enabled ‘At-Risk slots’ for customers who are part of vulnerable communities or are caring for someone who is. The crisis accelerated our Express Delivery services, which was aimed to provide grocery orders to the customers in less than two hours.

Most of our orders were shipped from Fulfillment Centers (FCs) or from a few stores. With the spike in online orders we had to act quickly to alleviate the demand. In less than one week we made critical decisions to create and launch the new process, which required rapid changes to our technology and business processes. We expanded our Ship-from-Store capability to thousands of stores across the country.

Working through this difficult time has helped us develop some path-breaking technologies to ensure seamless and safe customer service.

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