Retailers

Walmart's Voice Assistant Finding New Questions to Answer

Associate-facing Ask Sam app adapts to emergencies, COVID questions
Ask Sam aisle location
Photograph courtesy of Walmart

Walmart said this week that the Ask Sam app, which allows store associates to send and receive help from the sales floor via voice messages, is expanding capabilities as it grows from deployment in Sam’s Club stores to sites throughout the U.S.

Designed initially to speed the process and efficiency with which workers could locate products, check prices and accomplish other common sales-floor tasks, the voice assistant is now tackling  issues such as emergency management and questions about policies and procedures around COVID-19 that have been adapted rapidly in recent months due to the pandemic, Walmart said.

Similar to consumer-facing voice assistants such as Amazon’s Alexa, "Sam” was built with machine learning capabilities, which allows it to become more sophisticated with higher levels of accuracy over time. Additionally, the team conducts a manual review of the questions asked, looking for patterns and trends—such as recurring questions or top-searched items—to continuously update the app and adjust operations in the store,” Meng Chee, Walmart’s EVP and chief product officer, said in a blog post this week.

Chee joined the Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer in February as its first chief product officer and reports to Janey Whiteside, the company’s chief customer officer. Walmart said his role would “focus on delivering outstanding customer experiences and leveraging today’s technology to do it.” Chee most recently was digital chief experience officer of JPMorgan Chase and previously held leadership roles at Samsung Mobile, Nokia and Frog Design.

Chee said the company also created an “emergency alert button” feature in Ask Sam, which he said empowers managers to make quick decisions and communicate them during “high-stress” situations. “With the push of a button, clear and instructive emergency alerts are sent to all associates on and off the clock through multiple associate applications,” he explained. These alerts include: 

  • Stay inside the facility alert. This alert is used when an emergency is near the associate’s store, and advises associates to use lockdown procedures, moving associates and customers to a secure area.
  • Exit facility alert. This alert is used when there is an emergency in an associate’s store, and instructs associates to implement evacuation procedures, getting associates and customers out of harm’s way.
  • All clear. This alert is used when an associate’s store is safe and ready for normal operation and informs associates that they can resume activities in the store and report to shifts as normal.

With nearly 5,000 high-volume retail stores in the U.S., Walmart has been the site of any number of emergency situations, including some shootings in recent years.

“We are constantly engaging associates for feedback—in fact, it’s where some of our best ideas and innovations have come from,” Chee said. “Maintaining a customer-centric mindset and willingness to experiment will allow us to continuously improve and innovate the products, services and solutions we offer associates, and in turn, the value we provide for customers.”

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