Last week the U.S. government granted Walmart a patent for a new system of self-driving shopping carts that the company hopes to roll out in stores across the country in the near future.
According to the patent request, the shopping carts would be equipped with a detachable “Roomba-like” motor system that uses a combination of sensors and video cameras which allow the carts to drive around the store freely. Customers will be able to request a cart using a “user interface device” – most likely a smartphone – and the roaming motors will be able to fetch a cart and bring it to them.
“Walmart was able to revolutionize retail using technology to better serve customers,” Walmart spokesperson Lorenzo Lopez told Business Insider. “And as the retail landscape continues to evolve, we want to be able to serve customers when and how they want to shop. That means testing new and innovative ways to serve the customer, which we’ve done through different initiatives like our grocery pickup service.”
While the patent describes the motorized cart’s role as enhancing customer’s shopping experience, the new technology could have negative repercussions for Walmart employees, with the automated devices being able to fulfill several tasks once reserved for humans.
For instance, the self-driving shopping carts will be able to identify an unattended cart located inside the store or parking lot and return it to a docking station without the need of any employee assistance or oversight. The motorized units can also potentially move containers, scan and retrieve products, manage inventory, and even connect with customers – all responsibilities usually held by store employees.
In recent months, Walmart has come under fire for a number of staffing and employee issues. More than 200 violent crimes have been committed so far this year at Walmart locations across the U.S., with Bloomberg arguing that the rise in crime is linked to the retailer understaffing stores. With the elimination of store greeters, as well as the rise of self-checkout scanners, shoplifting and other illegal activities has become increasingly easier without employees noticing.
In the patent, Walmart argues that the new technology system could improve customers’ in-store experience, while also solving problems that Walmart employees cannot.
“In a modern retail store environment, there is a need to improve the customer experience and/or convenience for the customer,” say the patent’s authors, while noting specific issues including insufficient employees in peak hours, under-trained workers due to high-turnover rate, messy aisles, and theft.
“All of these issues can result in low customer satisfaction or reduced convenience to the customer,” the patent continues. “With increasing competition from non-traditional shopping mechanisms, such as online shopping provided by e-commerce merchants and alternative store formats, it can be important for ‘brick and mortar’ retailers to focus on improving the overall customer experience and/or convenience.”
There is no word yet on when or where Walmart intends to start using the self-driving shopping cart system.