Walmart’s Jon Alferness: How AI Is Disrupting Our Industry, and What We Can Do About It

An Interview With Cynthia Corsetti

Enhance Customer Experience — AI is a powerful tool to elevate the retail experience. It’s transforming our industry, from customer interactions to data aggregation. For instance, our GenAI system offers customers a seamless shopping journey. It guides them from their initial search, to providing AI-summarized reviews, and culminating in a swift checkout process.

Artificial Intelligence is no longer the future; it is the present. It’s reshaping landscapes, altering industries, and transforming the way we live and work. With its rapid advancement, AI is causing disruption — for better or worse — in every field imaginable. While it promises efficiency and growth, it also brings challenges and uncertainties that professionals and businesses must navigate. What can one do to pivot if AI is disrupting their industry? As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Jon Alferness.

Jon Alferness is executive vice president and chief product officer for Walmart U.S. He is tasked with moving the Walmart U.S. business strategy forward by bringing to life digital and physical experiences and capabilities for members, customers and associates.

Before joining Walmart, Jon was the chief product officer and executive vice president of technology at Varo Bank, where he led engineering, product, design and science to further Varo’s mission of providing banking for all. Prior to Varo Bank, Jon was vice president of rideshare at Lyft, where he led engineering, product and revenue and was responsible for the strategy, development and growth of the ridesharing product and business teams. Before that, Jon spent 13 years at Google as vice president of product management leading teams for shopping, travel, mobile ads and search ads.

Jon has over 20 years of experience in the Silicon Valley product and technology space. He has a passion for leading cross functional organizations to build and grow businesses. Jon lives in San Francisco with his wife and two children.

Jon Alferness is executive vice president and chief product officer for Walmart U.S. He is tasked with moving the Walmart U.S. business strategy forward by bringing to life digital and physical experiences and capabilities for members, customers and associates.

Jon’s role as chief product officer for Walmart U.S. allows him to touch many sectors within Walmart, like eCommerce, associate tools, merchant tools, financial services, and health and wellness business segments.

Jon has over 20 years of experience in the Silicon Valley product and technology space. He has a passion for leading cross functional organizations to build and grow businesses. Jon lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and two children.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

Certainly, I’d love to share a bit about my journey to where I am today. Prior to joining Walmart, my career revolved around several Silicon Valley tech firms. I had an exciting tenure at Lyft, where I was responsible for leading the engineering, product, and revenue teams. My primary role there was to strategize, develop, and grow the ridesharing product and business teams, which was incredibly rewarding.

Before Lyft, I spent 13 years at Google, holding the position of Vice President of Product Management. During my time there, I had the privilege to lead teams for shopping, travel, mobile ads, and search ads. Each role provided unique challenges and opportunities to grow.

When the opportunity arose to join Walmart as the Chief Product Officer, I was immediately intrigued. Walmart might not traditionally be associated with Silicon Valley, but the company is embracing technology in innovative and exciting ways. I was drawn to the chance to contribute to this ongoing evolution.

I’ve always admired Walmart for its leadership, its immense scale, and the unique physical footprint it has established over the years. The company’s mission to help people live better aligns with my own values. As I learned more about how Walmart is infusing technology into its operations and the impressive successes it has achieved, I was inspired to bring my Silicon Valley product management experience to this transformative journey at Walmart.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

What sets Walmart apart is our unwavering commitment to our customers and our associates. While it’s common for companies to assert that their operations are customer-centric, we at Walmart live by the mantra of being “people led, tech enabled.” This means we value the human element integral to our operations just as much, if not more, than the technology we employ.

Our focus on our customers and associates is deeply ingrained in our DNA, going back to the inception of the company. This was markedly apparent to me from the moment I joined Walmart, as I saw our scale, the strength of our people, and the expansive physical footprint we have. Interacting with our associates, especially within our stores, was a transformative experience. Witnessing their pride and dedication to their roles and how they uphold the culture of the company has been inspiring.

One example that comes to mind is witnessing firsthand the application of Artificial Intelligence in the hands of our front-line associates, almost like a superpower to enhance their capabilities. During a routine store visit, I observed an associate using AI technology to streamline inventory management, resulting in more efficient service to our customers. This interaction left a lasting impression on me and reinforced the belief that our people, empowered by technology, are at the heart of our success.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

The journey towards success in business leadership is multifaceted, but I believe three key traits have been instrumental in my journey.

1. The willingness to take risks. This was clearly demonstrated when we embarked on work in the GenAI space. This was new territory for us, a venture into an arena we had not explored before. Despite the uncertainty, we were willing to experiment, understanding that failure was a possibility, but also an opportunity to learn and grow. Having a growth mindset was critical during this process, as it allowed us to innovate and push boundaries.

2. Truth telling has been a cornerstone of my leadership approach. Ensuring the voices of our associates and customers are heard in a true and transparent manner is paramount. For instance, when our associates suggested the use of RFID to better connect our systems, we listened and implemented their ideas. This openness to feedback and new ideas has driven our product roadmap forward, and we wouldn’t be where we are today without it.

3. The ability to empower teams has been crucial. When I first joined Walmart, I spent a year learning from our associates and understanding the lay of the land. The best ideas come from our associates and thanks to their willingness to share, we’ve been able to stand up new ways of operating including implementing charters which will be a huge unlock for our capabilities. Assuming positive intent, fostering a culture of collaboration, and removing roadblocks for smart, capable people are key to our success. We believe in winning together, and by empowering our teams, we cover more ground and achieve great things collectively.

Let’s now move to the main point of our discussion about AI. Can you explain how AI is disrupting your industry? Is this disruption hurting or helping your bottom line?

AI has been an incredible force in disrupting the retail industry, and at Walmart, we view this disruption as an opportunity to innovate and better serve our customers. Our industry is being revolutionized by AI and we are harnessing this technology to improve every facet of our business, from customer interactions to behind-the-scenes operations.

At the heart of our AI strategy is the goal of empowering both our customers and associates. We’re using AI to enhance the shopping experience by better understanding our customers’ needs and preferences. This allows us to provide personalized suggestions and streamline their search process, helping them save valuable time.

Simultaneously, we’re also leveraging the power of AI to provide our associates with the tools they need to excel in their roles. AI-powered solutions are helping them manage inventory, respond to customer queries more efficiently and even predict future shopping trends.

One particular area where AI has been a game changer for us is in the use of generative AI (GenAI). GenAI has the ability to generate text, images, or other media based on the data it’s trained on. We see GenAI as an industry disruptor that has the potential to reshape the retail landscape in a positive way.

We are already witnessing the benefits of this technology. For instance, we’re using GenAI to assist customers with complex purchases. This includes helping them select the most suitable products, such as an age-appropriate cell phone for a child that’s also compatible with their current wireless provider. This type of assistance elevates our relationship with customers from being a mere shopping destination to a trusted partner.

In terms of our bottom line, we believe these AI-driven initiatives are not just helping, but significantly boosting our business performance. By offering a more personalized, efficient, and interactive shopping experience, we’re delighting our customers.

Which specific AI technology has had the most significant impact on your industry?

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is revolutionizing our industry in myriad ways, and at Walmart, we’re embracing this disruption as a catalyst for enhancing our overall customer experience — both online and in-store. As Chief Product Officer, my focus is centered on the entirety of our customers’ interactions with Walmart, and AI plays a pivotal role in this.

AI is enabling us to redefine the traditional shopping experience by making it more personalized, interactive, and efficient. One area where AI is particularly disruptive is in search optimization. AI-powered searches on not only make the shopping process quicker but also more intuitive — something we’re particularly excited about.

Take, for instance, the example of planning a child’s birthday party. Previously, customers would need to physically visit a store for assistance or tediously enter each item into the online search field. Now, with the introduction of Generative AI (GenAI), customers can simply ask, “What do I need for a unicorn-themed house party?” and receive tailored suggestions. This is a game-changer in terms of convenience and personalization, and it’s just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what AI can do to enhance the shopping experience.

Can you share a pivotal moment when you recognized the profound impact AI would have on your sector?

The moment I realized that AI could democratize and level the playing field for technology development. In the past, for example companies would spend a decade building complex systems to answer intricate consumer queries such as, “what are the best strollers for cobblestone streets?”.

However, with AI, we can now answer these same questions by integrating a bit of AI into our existing systems, and we can do it more efficiently. This realization was significant because it showed me that AI was no longer exclusive to just a handful of tech giants; it had become a vital tool that could enhance the customer experience for retailers of all sizes.

Moreover, it made me realize that AI was not only going to be widespread but also expected by the customers. They expect the digital world to understand the complexities of the real world. As a result, AI has become table stakes for meeting customer expectations.

In essence, AI is the driving force behind a seismic shift in customer engagement. At Walmart, we’re laser focused on keeping pace with this change. We’re committed to using AI to enhance our customers’ shopping experience, from making product recommendations to streamlining the search process. This technology is not just a piece of the puzzle, but rather a cornerstone of our mission to serve our customers better and make their lives easier.

How are you preparing your workforce for the integration of AI, and what skills do you believe will be most valuable in an AI-enhanced future?

We are preparing our workforce for the integration of AI by leveraging our current AI capabilities to improve the working experience for our associates. We continuously collect and analyze data from our associates using GenAI to understand their needs, challenges, and aspirations, and incorporate these insights into our AI integration strategies.

In terms of skills, we believe that curiosity, innovation, and adaptability will be most valuable in an AI-enhanced future. We encourage our teams to explore and understand the potential of AI technology, to imagine what could be possible, and to use this understanding to innovate and unlock new solutions for our customers and associates.

We are also committed to maintaining the highest level of data integrity and security as we integrate AI into our operations in a responsible way.

We are not just preparing our workforce for an AI-enhanced future, but we are also shaping that future. By ensuring our associates are equipped with the skills and knowledge to harness the power of AI, we are making Walmart a leader in delivering customer-centric solutions in the age of AI.

What are the biggest challenges in upskilling your workforce for an AI-centric future?

One of the biggest challenges is making sure associates are involved with the process. AI can’t be a one-day training. It needs continual involvement and buy-in. For example, we’ve recently introduced a new tool at Walmart for associates, dubbed “My Assistant,” powered by AI. We prioritized comprehensive training sessions to ensure proficiency with this tool and we’re continually seeking feedback. And hands-on training is so important. Personally, I’ve discovered that delving into AI jargon doesn’t engage anyone until they witness its practical applications. Many associates have expressed how hands-on training truly animates the potential of GenAI.

What ethical considerations does AI introduce into your industry, and how are you tackling these concerns?

At Walmart, we’re excited about the possibilities AI brings, and we’re committed to harnessing its power in a manner that’s responsible, ethical, and aligned with our core values. In my opinion, one of the most prominent ethical considerations is data privacy. Thankfully we have an amazing group of associates focusing on good digital citizenship and how we responsibly use AI. Thanks to their work we’re able to continuously learn, adapt and uphold the highest ethical standards in our AI applications.

What are your “Five Things You Need To Do, If AI Is Disrupting Your Industry”?

1. Embrace AI Technology — It’s imperative to not merely adapt, but to lean into the shift towards AI. This technology is here to stay and the companies that will thrive are those that figure out how to leverage it to improve their business and customer service. At Walmart, we’re proactive in our approach towards AI, embracing the technology to enhance various facets of our operations.

2. Enhance Customer Experience — AI is a powerful tool to elevate the retail experience. It’s transforming our industry, from customer interactions to data aggregation. For instance, our GenAI system offers customers a seamless shopping journey. It guides them from their initial search, to providing AI-summarized reviews, and culminating in a swift checkout process.

3. Involve Your Associates — AI isn’t only about the customers, but also about improving the work experiences of our associates. At Walmart, we’ve deployed AI to support our workforce and preempt any potential issues. Through our MyAssistant platform, we use augmented reality (AR) to help associates identify the contents of a box without opening it. This saves time and allows them to focus on more rewarding tasks.

4. Strengthen Associate-Customer Relationships — Our ethos is being “people led, tech enabled,” which means we view technology as a personal tool that strengthens our relationships. When our associates are efficient with AI, it frees up more of their time for human interaction, fostering deeper connections with our customers.

5. Continual Learning — The world of AI is continuously evolving, so staying informed about the latest developments is crucial. Encourage dialogue about the implications of new technology and strive to stay one step ahead. As we navigate through this AI-dominated era, it’s essential to think strategically about how this technology will reshape our industry and our roles within it. At Walmart, we are committed to continual learning and strategic planning, ensuring we remain at the forefront of the evolution.

What are the most common misconceptions about AI within your industry, and how do you address them?

One of the most prevalent misconceptions within our industry is the belief that AI can function alone, without human insight and engagement. While AI is an exceptional tool that can handle routine tasks quickly and accurately, it is by no means a replacement for human judgement and understanding. AI, in its current state, lacks the ability to comprehend context and is heavily reliant on its pre-established training data.

True innovation, however, arises not from AI but from human thought and creativity that transcends established norms. It’s the magical moment that occurs when a group of individuals assemble in a room, letting their creativity and imagination take the lead, unbounded by past practices. This level of creative thinking is something that AI currently struggles to accomplish.

At Walmart, we are strongly committed to being “people led”. We believe in the profound impact human interaction has on our business, our customers, and our associates. AI is a tool to augment human capabilities, not replace them. We see AI as an enabler, helping us serve our customers better and making our associates’ jobs more rewarding. We are passionate about leveraging AI to enhance our operations while keeping our people at the forefront of everything we do. This balance is what truly drives innovation and success at Walmart.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

A quote that has had profound relevance in my life, especially in my role as the Chief Product Officer at Walmart is, “The only constant is change.”

The world of technology and AI is a whirlwind of constant evolution. The pace at which changes occur can sometimes be overwhelming, but it’s precisely this dynamism that makes it so exciting. If we wish to thrive in this environment, we must discard any expectations of stability and instead embrace the fluidity of it all.

Early in my career, I expected stability and predictability. However, I soon realized that this mindset was limiting my potential for growth and innovation. By accepting and navigating the unpredictable nature of technology, I was able to bring amazing products to life. Innovation is only made possible by embracing change.

This understanding of change aligns perfectly with Walmart’s culture. We are driven by innovation and the desire to serve our customers better every day. To do this, we must be prepared to navigate through the constant changes in our industry, using them as opportunities to learn, adapt, and grow.

Off-topic, but I’m curious. As someone steering the ship, what thoughts or concerns often keep you awake at night? How do those thoughts influence your daily decision-making process?

Two key thoughts generally keep me up at night. The first is ensuring we have the best talent on our teams. The caliber of our team shapes the quality of our products and customer service. Attracting, hiring, and retaining top talent is a continuous process that I am deeply involved in. I believe that the heart of Walmart is its people, and it’s my responsibility to ensure that we are a great place to work, where everyone feels valued, challenged, and inspired.

The second thought that often preoccupies me is the rapid rate of change in technology, particularly with advancements in AI. Given our scale, figuring out how to strategically respond to these changes in the most impactful and efficient way possible is crucial. We cannot afford to miss the moment.

In both cases, the underlying principle that guides me is the culture we’re creating. A culture that prioritizes people, values hard work, and encourages innovation. As long as we stay true to these principles, I am confident that we can navigate any challenge that comes our way.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 😊

The movement I would want to start is one of “Impactful Minimalism.” This idea stems from my belief in the power of small, strategic actions to create large, positive impacts. It’s a principle we uphold in product management, where we constantly seek insights that lead to the biggest lever and ask ourselves: What’s the most pointed, smallest thing we can do that drives the biggest impact?

The concept of Impactful Minimalism could be applied to various aspects of our lives and society. It could inspire individuals, communities, and organizations to identify the smallest yet most impactful actions they can take to effect change.

Imagine if everyone, from individuals to large corporations, sought out to maximize the good they do in the world with the smallest set of actions. Not only would this lead to more sustainable efforts, but it would also allow for a greater number of people to participate in doing good, as it removes the misconception that only grand gestures can make a difference.

In line with Walmart’s culture, this movement emphasizes the value of every individual’s contribution and the power of collective action. It’s about making a difference, however small, and knowing that every action counts. As Sam Walton once said, “Individuals don’t win, teams do.” This movement would be a testament to that belief, encouraging everyone to play their part in driving positive change in the world.

How can our readers further follow you online?

Readers can learn more about my work with Walmart on my LinkedIn page.

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

About the Interviewer: Cynthia Corsetti is an esteemed executive coach with over two decades in corporate leadership and 11 years in executive coaching. Author of the upcoming book, “Dark Drivers,” she guides high-performing professionals and Fortune 500 firms to recognize and manage underlying influences affecting their leadership. Beyond individual coaching, Cynthia offers a 6-month executive transition program and partners with organizations to nurture the next wave of leadership excellence.