Walmart Envisions the Shopping Cart of the Future

Can self-driving robotic carts that double as personal shoppers help the brick-and-mortar giant compete with online retailers like Amazon?

This program was produced by the Marketing Department of WIRED and Ars in collaboration with CA Technologies.

The latest high-tech robotics patent didn’t go to NASA or Google, but to Walmart, which recently won approval for an autonomously steered, self-returning shopping cart. And while there is no telling exactly when you might see a robot shopping cart cruising the aisles at your local store, the retail giant is said to be testing a prototype in its lab.

The concept is relatively simple. Customers summon a shopping cart to their location in the store using an app. The cart steers customers to the exact location of paper towels, ketchup or whatever else is on their shopping list—that means no more lost sales or frustration because customers can’t find an item. After the customer finishes shopping, the cart automatically returns itself to the collection area.

This type of automation is definitely a step in the right direction for Walmart and where they need to be going.

— Sucharita Mulpuru, chief retail strategist, Shoptalk

A Roomba for Retailers

So how does it work? The technology will likely look and perform similar to a robotic vacuum, which returns to the base after the floor is clean. According to Slashgear, the robotic portion of Walmart’s prototype is separate and will attach itself to steer the cart to customers, or back to the corral. Beacon technology will likely determine the location of the cart, the base and the customer along with the items on the shelves. IoT sensors, meanwhile, will guide the robots to avoid collisions with floor displays and other obstacles in the aisles.

While the location-detecting technology is key, this level of automation is possible only with software that can provide the information needed to control the carts. A mobile component to this software is essential, allowing managers to monitor the carts in real time. By using data analytics, the software can automatically increase the number of carts in the corral during busy times, or recommend new locations for items that shoppers struggle to find.

Can a shopping cart help Walmart revolutionize the in-store shopping experience and allow it to compete with online competitors such as Amazon? Sucharita Mulpuru, chief retail strategist at Shoptalk, says that while she doesn't think the cart alone will bring shoppers back from online retailers to the physical world, she predicts it will have an operational effect by helping Walmart save money and keep its crowded parking lots free of random carts.

“This type of automation is definitely a step in the right direction for Walmart and where they need to be going,” she says. “I think Walmart will have more patents like this in the future.”

Fad or Future? Automation in Retail

The personal touch is often what sets brick-and-mortar stores apart from online shopping sites. By using automation strategically, stores can increase their revenue and productivity, allowing more time for customer service. McKinsey estimates that 53 percent of retail activities, including stocking merchandise and maintaining records, can be automated. Walmart isn’t alone in using innovative automation—Lowe’s employs customer service robots, and Best Buy is piloting a robot of its own to keep tabs on inventory levels.

So, what impact might Walmart’s robotic cart patent have on the retail industry? Mulpuru predicts that this type of patent will encourage other retailers, especially larger companies like Target and Walgreens, to continue innovating and investing in technology.

“Walmart has essentially raised the bar with this patent,” says Mulpuru. “Other retailers will need to push harder to keep up. It’s time to really embrace technology and be creative about their patent portfolios.”

Jennifer GoForth Gregory
By Jennifer GoForth Gregory | November 22, 2016