CES 2024: Technology is changing retail and the skills workers need to do their jobs

Ben Peterson, head of people product for Walmart., joined WorkingNation at CES 2024 to share his thoughts on the potential impact of tech on the way we work and live

Even before the Covid pandemic, technology was changing the way Walmart and other retailers were serving their customers, in the stores and online. “From 2019 to now, we’ve had a 400% increase in the number of associates helping with increased online pickup and delivery orders. And that’s fundamentally changed the roles and the shift of skills that we’re looking for in those roles,” says Ben Peterson, head of people product for Walmart.

Peterson joined WorkingNation’s editor-in-chief Ramona Schindelheim for WorkingNation Overheard at CES 2024 in Las Vegas to share his thoughts on how technology is changing the retail industry workforce.

“Ten years ago, these roles for associates didn’t even exist. Now, we have an incredible fleet of 250,000 associates in the U.S that are doing online pickup and delivery orders. We’ll continue to see skills and jobs evolve as customer demands change, and that’s who we want to be,” Peterson tells WorkingNation. “We want to be people-led and tech-powered, and we want to ever evolve to our customer’s needs and meet them where they are.”

Walmart is using technology to handle some of the day-to-day work of the associates, including a newly-implemented, internal platform. “We recently launched a new feature called My Assistant, which brings the power of generative AI capabilities into the hands of our corporate population, but in a safe and secure way where they no longer they have to worry about data leaks into third party tools, but they can leverage the power of these generative tools to be more productive, more creative, and more efficient in their work.

“Because the reality is none of us like rote mundane tasks if we can help automate some of that to really unlock who our associates are at their core, and leverage our mission,” adds Peterson.

“We have 2.1 million associates, and that means we have 2.1 million people with great ideas who are on the frontlines serving our customers and members,” he continues. “Imagine if we’re able to take all that feedback, all those ideas, and how we can make our experience better for our customers, for our members, and actually activate it and operationalize around that.”

Peterson notes it’s important for the company to hear from its associates, especially when it comes to their concerns about working with new technology and the skills needed to continue doing their jobs and advancing in their roles. “We have seen a variety of concerns from differing levels of experience, whether they’re one-year associates right out of college or 35-year associates. People have differing levels of nerves and comfort with generative capabilities and with AI capabilities more broadly.

“That said, with My Assistant, what we’re seeing is when we put that tool into our associates’ hands and they actually start to interact with it and they understand how it can actually make them better at their job and free them up to do the things that they care about most, they’re huge believers.

“Once people actually try it, they don’t see it as a threat. They see it as a strategic differentiator, no different than other tools that we have in our toolkit like a Microsoft Excel to do data analysis better. It’s just another tool in their toolkit to be more effective and productive at what they do.”

Generative AI is not the only evolving technology that Walmart is rolling out. The company announced at CES that it is expanding it drone delivery service in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. It will now be available to 75% of the municipal region – 1.8 million households – making it the largest retail drone delivery initiative in the country.

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Funding for WorkingNation Overheard at CES 2024 was provided, in part, by Walmart.