When Walmart began rolling out a new theft-deterrence system three years ago, the retail giant hoped it would improve the self-checkout experience for shoppers while saving the company money.
The artificial-intelligence-based system, developed by an Ireland-based company called Everseen, uses cameras to read the movements of customers, and determine if an item was bagged but not scanned at the self-checkout kiosk. It then alerts a self-checkout host to intervene and help the customer scan whatever was missed.
But that same system has now become a serious concern for some Walmart employees during the coronavirus pandemic. Emails reviewed by HuffPost show corporate employees discussing the system’s errors ― flagging legitimate scans as non-scans, and prompting workers to step in when they shouldn’t have to. They even wonder if the system should be shut down in the interests of social distancing, which would take away a backstop against theft.
A Walmart employee familiar with the issue said the system’s “false positives” have taken on new meaning as grocery workers and other frontline employees have gotten sick and died due to the coronavirus. The system is used in many but not all Walmart stores.
“It’s no longer just an annoyance,” said the employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation. “Now it’s a health issue.”
Walmart and Everseen declined to discuss the system in detail. But a Walmart spokesperson said employees have been addressing safety issues throughout the pandemic, and the company does not believe the Everseen program to be a problem based on the data it has evaluated. The self-checkout kiosks, the spokesperson noted, are cleaned regularly and employees are provided with protective equipment like masks and gloves.
A lot of other issues might prompt a self-checkout host to step over and help a customer, like a problem with a coupon or debit card, the spokesperson added.
“Self-checkout is just one of the ways that we’ve offered customers solutions to get the items they need safely during this time, in addition to other options like delivery, pickup, touchless payment at the register and shopping online,” the company said. “Customers are using this option now, as much as ever, and we will continue to work hard to ensure the in-store experience for our customers is safe, affordable and convenient, as well as safe for our associates.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people maintain six feet of distance between one another to limit the spread of COVID-19, though such precautions aren’t always possible in a grocery store environment.
Many customers prefer using self-checkout during the pandemic, since it would seem to eliminate the need to interact with a cashier, and thereby decrease the possibility of transmitting COVID-19. For years, retailers like Walmart have been making a push toward self-checkout in large part to save on labor costs.
The use of Everseen highlights the devil’s bargain that self-checkout presents for retailers. Self-checkout allows them to rely on fewer full-time cashiers, but by outsourcing the scanning work to customers they become more vulnerable to “shrink” ― the loss of inventory, be it due to theft or honest mistakes. Preventing shrink is a top concern of Walmart’s “asset protection” division, which helps oversee the use of Everseen.
On its website, Everseen says it provides “technological solutions” for retailers, through an AI platform that “combines advanced machine learning technology with computer vision algorithms and neural networks.” In layman’s speak, the system uses cameras to track the motions of shoppers and their items. By squaring those motions with what’s scanned at the registers, the system can pick up items that weren’t scanned but may soon head out the door.
In an ideal scenario, a self-checkout host could then intervene tactfully and check to see if all the items were scanned properly. The system is meant to head off any inventory loss without a hostile confrontation. It’s also meant to replace the troublesome weight sensors that get tripped up by unexpected items in the bagging area.
Employees even wonder if the system should be shut down in the interests of social distancing.
Walmart has gradually ramped up the use of Everseen since an initial pilot program. The Wall Street Journal reported in February that the system was now in more than 2,000 Walmart locations, with the chain getting rid of many of those weight sensors. The company has more than 5,000 Walmart and Sam’s Club stores in the U.S. According to the Journal, Walmart is developing its own version of a similar system that may replace Everseen.
Everseen declined to answer questions related to Walmart and the pandemic, including whether the company knows how frequently its system makes mistakes, saying it does not discuss clients. A spokesperson said Everseen “is committed to helping its customers deliver the best possible experience for shoppers and store associates” amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“Self-checkouts continue to be an important innovation, and now bring the especially important benefits of a generally contactless shopping experience, avoiding manned-lanes in busy stores with limited staff available,“ the spokesperson said in an email.
Walmart has kept its doors open as an essential business selling household staples during the pandemic. Grocery stores and big-box retailers like Target and Walmart saw a surge in sales after coronavirus cases began to grow in the U.S., as Americans stocked up and prepared to hunker down. Bloomberg reported Tuesday that in the most recent quarter Walmart saw its fastest sales growth in nearly two decades.
Many grocery workers on the front lines of the pandemic have gotten sick since the start of the pandemic, and dozens have passed away. The United Food and Commercial Workers union, which does not represent Walmart employees, estimated last week that 65 grocery workers had died from COVID-19 and nearly 10,000 had been infected.
Three weeks ago Walmart had to temporarily close a location in Worcester, Massachusetts, where more than 80 employees tested positive for the virus. Local health officials found that employees there weren’t wearing personal protective equipment, according to local news reports. The store reopened days later after a deep cleaning.
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