Target store employees will soon have a mini AI-powered sidekick to quickly answer their questions, from when something will be in stock to procedures for handling food during a power outage or how a customer can sign up for the Target Circle loyalty program.

Called the Store Companion, the generative AI chatbot is accessed through workers' handheld devices and will be rolled out to all of Target's nearly 2,000 stores by August.

When that happens, it will make Minneapolis-based Target the first major U.S. retailer to bring generative artificial intelligence to its entire store team as the industry clamors to experiment with the new technology.

"A store team member job is really hard," said Brett Craig, Target's chief information officer, in an interview. "They're interfacing with our guests every day, and they have so much responsibility across different processes. ... It really is about empowering the team."

The tool is expected to save time because employees can ask informal, conversational questions instead of looking up answers in physical handbooks or Target's online intranet guides. To develop Store Companion, the in-house technology team used real frequently asked questions from its store teams and took additional feedback from employees as it was tested in stores.

The Champlin Target was one of the first stores in the country to pilot the technology, starting to use it in March.

New employees unfamiliar with Target's processes have found it helpful, and so have workers facing unusual situations, said Champlin store director Jake Seaquist.

"This is making [answers] more findable," he said. "Quicker, too."

One morning earlier this week, storms knocked out the power that fed some of the refrigerated food and produce sections of the store. Employee Steve Noon asked Store Companion what to do with the food items and received a step-by-step guide on how to protect the temperature-sensitive items by using a tarp-like material and how to determine what items needed to be thrown out.

Target is currently using the tool at about 400 stores to collect feedback as it prepares for the chainwide rollout.

Generative AI, even while still in relative infancy, has the power to completely transform the average consumer's retail experience whether in terms of improvements with customer service, website navigation and more, according to digital consultancy Publicis Sapient.

"By simplifying and speeding up processes and access to information, this chatbot tool can help reduce the attrition level and lead to a better hedge against the rising cost of labor," said Sudip Mazumder, senior vice president and retail industry lead for North America at Publicis Sapient. "Additionally, such a tool is also helping employees become more productive, freeing them up to do higher-value work, which ultimately reduces costs to the business and improves morale."

Several other retailers including Walmart, Amazon and eBay, also are experimenting with the technology to enhance employee efficiency and the customer experience.

According to a recent survey conducted by Publicis Sapient, 87% of shoppers that have used a generative AI tool are excited about the potential the technology could bring to their shopping experience and 27% of shoppers are excited about AI's ability to improve price comparisons, deal alerts and search results.

Target is exploring the use of AI in ways beyond Store Companion.

In the customer-experience realm, the retailer has begun to use AI on its website and app by allowing for a more intuitive guided search, letting customers use more conversational language. For example, instead of a customer searching for "napkins" or "plastic forks," he or she might search "summer party," which would bring up a wider selection of party supplies, invitations, outdoor tableware, meat for grilling and possibly forgotten items such as bug spray.

Generative AI also is being used to summarize reviews and provide more detailed product descriptions.

Target also is testing other ways to use generative AI, Craig said. In the coming months, Target said it plans to release a similar chatbot application for its headquarters employees in Minneapolis.

"Generative AI is a truly transformative technology that is empowering our team in ways that I think will be really, really impactful on the experience that we can create," Craig said.