Wal-Mart garners patent for smart cart technology, part of effort to test many ideas and technologies

by Kim Souza ([email protected]) 1,027 views 

A robotic shopping cart is yet another example of the “test and learn” mindset infused into the DNA of Wal-Mart Stores by founder Sam Walton. The company hopes self-driving shopping carts could enhance consumer experiences as well as increase operating efficiencies.

The U.S. Government on Sept. 8 approved a patent for Wal-Mart Stores that details technology that could be applied to shopping carts to automate their movements when connected to smartphones or other devices. The smart cart that can drive itself is not a new concept, but if automobiles, semi trucks and airplanes can be equipped to self pilot it stands to reason shopping carts could do the same.

Lorenzo Lopez, corporate spokesman for Walmart U.S., said the retailer had a concept for the smart cart but it’s just one of the dozens of technology applications being examined by Wal-Mart.

“We continually are looking at applications of technology that allow us to better serve our customers. This concept would be part of the shopping experience and it could do some other functions as well. There is not a plan in place at this time regarding this concept,” Lopez told Talk Business & Politics.

He said there would be lots of testing and learning before any concept could be put into the retailer’s everyday operation, and he offered no timeline for the testing phase.

The 62-page patent application noted one use for the technology concept would be to equip typical shopping carts with detachable motors. The motors that would be placed below the bottom rack of the shopping cart would have video cameras and sensors and be controlled from a central command center and easily interfaced with mobile devices such as smart phones. (Link here for the PDF of the application.)

A customer would request a cart and one would be dispatched. The self-driving carts return to the cart dock when groceries are unloaded by the shopper at their car. There would be no need for shoppers to push the carts toward a holding area and there would be no empty carts left stranded in parking lots or store aisles.

The application also addressed how motorized carts could help stores keep track of inventory. If a manager wants to see if a particular item is in stock after searching the inventory system, a smart cart could be sent to the shelf to ensure the product is there. The camera on the device could photograph the shelf to ensure correct pricing and labeling.

While robots have become standard in manufacturing, they are still a novelty in retail and other applications. Wal-Mart told the media during its shareholder week in June that they have a team of scientists and technology experts continually looking at ways technology can be used to deliver efficiency and convenience for the business and customers. The innovation team also is looking at drone technology and exploring how that can be used across the business.

Carol Spieckerman, CEO of Bentonville-based Spieckerman Retail, said smart carts are part of a move to personalize the retail experience.

“Smart cart technology is a retail inevitability and no two retailers will approach it the same way. It is yet another example of the digital rethinking of physical retail and reinforces retailers’ determination to create more engaging and intuitive in-store experiences,” Spieckerman told Talk Business & Politics. “Smart carts also have the potential to become a powerful personalization tool that can track shopping lists, store personalized payment information and even monitor shoppers’ dietary preferences and restrictions. The possibilities are truly endless. For retailers, having the ability to track shoppers’ in-store journeys and tie them to actual purchases will be invaluable.”

Spieckerman also said Wal-Mart is fully invested in trying as many ideas as possible.

“The retailers that have made it this far have to be in a constant state of ‘multi-testing’ and Walmart is embracing this sensibility as never before. The days of going all-in or chain-wide on a single experiment or, conversely, dabbling in innovations one-at-a-time are over. Having the courage to fail fast and move on will also be critical going forward. No sacred cows or hanging on and hoping for traction,” Spieckerman said.

This summer Wal-Mart confirmed it also is evaluating another smart cart prototype developed by Five Elements Robotics. Wal-Mart spokesman Ravi Jariwala said the retailer was evaluating a smart cart prototype in its lab and giving feedback to the robotics company.

Five Elements Robotics first developed Budgee in early 2014 with the goal of seeing the robot integrated into daily life. The robot is equipped to carry items for the user. Budgee weighs less than 20 pounds and can be driven by remote control using a smartphone or tablet. The company said in 2014 a second target for this type of smart cart would be retail chains and mall management services.

“For retail chains such as Walmart, KMart, Target, etc, having a fleet of Budgees will not only draw shoppers due to the novelty, but also help them with sales,” Budgee said in a statement.

This type of smart cart can be equipped with helpful information such as where is the store items are located and also reminded customers of sales items and their locations in the store. The robot can also be equipped with a scanner to better facilitate checkout and allow customers to skip the line. The company also said the smart cart could alert management if a customer tries to leave with an item they didn’t purchase.

Budgee retails for $1,399 and can carry up to 50 pounds. It is not clear what prototype Walmart is evaluating. Analysts agreed it’s unlikely that Walmart would spend that kind of money on shopping carts, but given the retailer’s own tech savvy perhaps there is a way Wal-Mart can make its own shopping carts smarter in the years to come. The recent patent approval could be a step in that direction.