We’re in ‘third quarter’ of AI contest, says Walmart International CEO

For most people, AI only burst onto the scene in November 2022, when OpenAI released its buzzy AI-powered chatbot ChatGPT. That helped spark a rush to embrace generative AI: CEOs littered their earnings statements with references to the new technology, and investors sent shares of companies like Nvidia and Microsoft to record highs.

But in truth, companies have been thinking about AI long before ChatGPT burst on the scene. “AI has been the lifeblood of most organizations for the last 10 years,” Kathryn McLay, CEO of Walmart International, at the Fortune Innovation Forum in Hong Kong on Wednesday.

“I’m excited about what Gen AI can bring,” McLay said. “I don’t think the game’s just started, we’re at the third-quarter.” 

But the Walmart International CEO said businesses still don’t know what to do with AI. “People are struggling with how to work out what are the best use cases for generative AI, and they want it to run 500 things,” she said. 

Retailers are using AI to determine the Net Promoter Score, which measures how delighted or frustrated customers were about their retail experience, and through that build customer profiles and personalized experiences. 

But Walmart isn’t just using AI to better predict customer preferences. McClay said that her experience leading Sam’s Club, Walmart’s members-only warehouse club, is what led her to apply AI to help with tasks people don’t like to do, such as inventory management. 

McClay took over as Walmart International’s CEO last year, following four years running Sam’s Club. She boosted the division’s revenue by 43% during her tenure. Before working at Walmart, McClay spent time at airline Qantas and Australian retailer Woolworths. The CEO position at Walmart International has previously been a stepping stone to becoming CEO of the whole company: Current CEO Doug McMillon served as Walmart International CEO from 2009 to 2014.

Walmart International currently operates in 18 countries, and McClay pointed to Mexico, China and India as three growth markets that require a different kinds of digital transformation. 

For example, Walmart is putting kiosks in its Mexican stores to assist customers that do not have internet access. By comparison, Walmart is investing in AI for its Indian operations, due to the country being a digital native marketplace. The retail company launched a generative AI-powered shop assistant called Flippy in India, which can respond to customer questions with a customized and tailored response. 

Finally, McClay said Walmart’s operations in China have gone more digital. Over 95% of Walmart’s transactions were in-store in 2019; now, 48% of transactions are digital, McClay said. That’s forced Walmart to change how it operates in the Chinese market. 

Thanks to generative AI, “customers can expect a more delightful experience in retail,” McClay said. “We’re just only on the cusp of that now.”

Leave a Comment