Yesterday, U.S. Patent No. 9,908,760 B2 was awarded to Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. for “Shopping facility assistance systems, devices and methods to drive movable item containers.” Translation, robot shopping carts could be making their way to Walmart.
The patent was filed two years ago for what looks like a Roomba underneath a shopping cart, which drives it around. It covers a ton of possible technological implementations around how it works and communicates, as well as broad set of use cases. Whatever it finally looks like, shopping carts are going high-tech and Walmart is set to expand its robotic workforce.
Last year the retailer started rolling out shelf-scanning robots to roam the aisles and look for depleted inventory on shelves. The company is a big believer in robots, and says it wants to use them for tasks that are “repeatable, predictable, and manual.”
Being issued a patent doesn’t mean you’ll run into one on your next trip to the store for LaCroix, but the patent filing calls out a number of scenarios that give you a sense of what Walmart might have in store, including:
Customer assistance – a “tagalong” feature would allow robot shopping carts to lead or follow shoppers around the store
Interactive controls – shoppers could speak or enter via touch screen items they are looking for and the shopping cart would guide them
Worker assistance – items for re-stocking could be sent to specific locations in-store
Remote shopping – via an interactive screen, shoppers at home could virtually accompany an in-store shopper
Property detection – the store would know where all their shopping carts are and when they are abandoned
Surveillance – video cameras could be attached to the carts to serve “various security purposes”
Not to mention all the data Walmart would get from connecting their shopping carts and monitoring their every move as people made their way around the store. It’s not a leap to imagine people connecting their Walmart accounts and “logging in” to their shopping carts where they are served up bespoke advertisements.
Given all that, it’s patently obvious that it’s not so much a question of “if” Walmart will roll these out, but when and how.