Not to be outdone by Amazon, Walmart has rolled out a series of updates to its grocery business recently, including a partnership between its Sam’s Club wing and Instacart, the acquisition of Parcel, and the recent announcement of its Eden technology, which could help save the giant retailer $2 billion in food waste costs over the next half-decade.
But as a new research brief from CB Insights points out, all these endeavors could benefit from Walmart’s getting involved in the other end of its grocery store supply chain—that is, farming the crops that eventually wind up on its store shelves.
To that end, the retailer giant recently applied for a series of six patents aimed at farm automation.
These include an application that uses machine vision for identifying pests and monitoring crop damage, drones that shoot targeted sprays of pesticides instead of the usual cloud, and the “robot bee” patent, which would carry pollen from plant to plant. There’s also potential for drones to act as the next generation of “scarecrows or shiny devices” to scare away hungry birds, according to the patent.
While all this is fairly abstract at the moment, the patent filings do suggest that Walmart wants to be more involved with the source of its supply chain in order to save time and money, and even give consumers more transparency.
But how deep into the farming business could—and should—a major retailer go? After all, it’s one thing to file a patent; it’s another to actually execute on the processes and technologies outlined in those documents, particularly when they’re outside a company’s core business. Multiple retailers, including Amazon, have been testing drones from some time now, but most of those efforts are around how to deliver food, not grow it. As this piece noted last year, “the agricultural use of drones sounds good in theory—feed the world, save the planet—but is difficult in practice.”
But that may be to Walmart’s advantage as it looks to differentiate itself from Amazon and others in the ensuing fight for grocery store supremacy. I don’t imagine Walmart will operate full-fledged farms anytime soon. But if the above patents prove successful, it may give the massive retailer a new part of the grocery store supply chain to dominate.
What do you think? Should Walmart consider a serious play in the farming space? I’d love to hear your thoughts.