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Target embraces generative AI with Store Companion


By Webb Wright, NY Reporter

June 21, 2024 | 5 min read

The system, which aims to boost employee performance, will be rolled out chain-wide by August.


Target currently operates close to 2,000 stores across the US. / Adobe Stock

Retail giant Target announced yesterday that it has started deploying a new generative AI-powered tool designed to help employees become more efficient and capable in their roles.

Dubbed Store Companion, the system is being positioned as a kind of automated personal assistant for matters related to company protocol and customer service, “helping new and seasonal team members learn on the job,” Target wrote in a press release. Employees can, for example, ask Store Companion about the process of signing up a customer or a company membership card and the chatbot will respond in seconds.

It will be launched as an app on employees’ “specially equipped handheld devices,” according to the company.

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“Generative AI is game-changing technology and Store Companion will make daily tasks easier and enable our team to respond to guests’ requests with confidence and efficiency,” Mark Schindele, executive vice-president and chief stores officer at Target, said in a statement. “The tool frees up time and attention for our team to serve guests with care and to create a shopping destination that invites discovery, ease and moments of everyday joy.”

Store Companion is currently being piloted at about 400 Target locations. A nationwide rollout – close to 2,000 stores in total – is expected to be completed by August. (The retailer does not currently operate outside of the US.)

Target is just the latest in a long and growing list of legacy brands that have begun leveraging AI in the hopes of boosting employee productivity, adding some flair to ads, positioning themselves as tech-oriented pioneers or all of the above.

For example, Coca-Cola – along with a cohort of other big-name food and beverage brands – started eagerly leveraging generative AI for marketing purposes. McDonald’s, meanwhile, launched an AI-powered voice assistant in partnership with IBM at more than 100 drive-thru locations starting in 2021.

As the McDonald’s case has highlighted, however, AI-powered business strategies don’t always go according to plan. The company announced earlier this week that its automated drive-thru assistant would be removed following some embarrassing episodes shared on social media, which showed the system behaving unpredictably.

This “black box” quality that’s intrinsic to generative AI models – that is, the lack of transparency into their process for producing outputs – is a double-edged sword for brands: On the one hand, it can serve to automate routine functions with minimal to no human oversight; at the same time, it’s liable to lead to unexpected and embarrassing behavior.

Target will likely skirt the kind of embarrassment that McDonald’s has been facing due to the fact that its new AI tool is intended only for employees, according to Sucharita Kodali, a principal analyst at Forrester who specializes in the retail industry. “It’s store associate-facing, not consumer-facing, because there is still risk involved with getting things wrong,” she says. “If it’s not that useful, no one will use it … and it dies on the vine.”

Target’s generative AI ambitions don’t end with Store Companion. The company also mentioned in its press release yesterday that it “plans to roll out another internal [generative AI] tool in the coming months, starting with its headquarters team members.”

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