Walmart is continuously trying to become more efficient and to realize greater profits. We see this through Walmart’s renowned logistics division, its many initiatives, and, most recently, its patent filings. As Walmart strengthens its position in the tech world with its mobile applications and data acquisitions, Walmart's patent filings will continue growing. This post looks at the last six months of Walmart’s patent grants and publications (applications which may be granted) to shed insight into the potential tactics of the Bentonville, Arkansas behemoth.
Making Shopping Fun & Easy
In an attempt at making the shopping experience more enjoyable for parents of small children, Walmart may be developing an augmented reality shopping game. A recent patent publication (U.S. Patent Publication 20140172640) discusses a virtual reality system through which children will be able to help their parents shop by following indicators on virtual reality glasses or mobile devices like phones and tablets. Essentially, the parent would make a list online before coming to the store. Once the parent entered the store, he or she would turn the kids loose with a mobile device. The child would be able to score points by going around the store to find the list of items. Guidance arrows and maps would assist the child in both finding the listed items as well as making the way back to Mom or Dad. The parents, meanwhile, would be able to monitor the child’s progress, as well as keep tabs on the location of the child. The application is fairly detailed on potential rules (using an accelerometer to keep the child from running) and age limitations (restricting scavenger hunt items for young children to items close to the parent and within a certain weight range).
Walmart has also applied for a patent (U.S. Patent Publication 20140122191) on a system through which the parent assigns to the child a shopping list of items that is then sent to the child’s mobile device. The system then allows the child to pick out a “reward item.” Once the kid finds all of the items on his or her list, the parent can use his or her device to give the child permission to get their reward.
A natural reaction would be to laugh, because why would a child play a shopping video game or help with shopping when they could be pushed around in the cart while playing Angry Birds on a mobile device? Time will tell if Walmart can actually make such programs popular and trendy and if that popularity leads to higher profits. This patent application indicates that Walmart is seeking to find a way to keep children content while in the store. If the child is content, then theoretically, the mother or father will have more time to browse, which could lead to more impulse buys.
Shopping in large retail grocery stores can be daunting, especially when specialty products can be hard to find. When your Thanksgiving meals depends on a can of cranberries, it’s helpful to have a way of finding the elusive cranberries. Walmart has taken it one step further and provided a system (U.S. Patent Publication 20140144977) that would enable a shopper to select a desired recipe to add the necessary ingredients to his or her electronic shopping list on the Walmart app. Adding to the ease of the shopping list, Walmart has added a scanable barcode aspect for certain recipes – possibly ones circulated by Walmart by email or print media – which uploads the ingredients immediately into the cart. The system then provides the customer product information such as each item’s price and its location in the store.
Customer insight appears key in a good number of the pending Walmart patent applications and patent grants. As Walmart receives more data about its customers, the patent filings indicate a strategy for using that data to bring those customers back into the store. These strategies range from alerts to reorder a product (U.S. Patent Publication 20140156423) based upon the approximated lifespan of the consumable good to emails with recipe suggestions using a recent grocery purchase (U.S. Patent Publication 20140172894) based on the customer’s past purchases and perceived culinary preferences.
Using Data to Drive E-Commerce
Data is king and now more than ever that is playing a role in how retailers engage customers. Walmart realizes that the more they know about you – your interests, your activities, your searches, your purchases – the greater its ability to tailor advertising in a way that will appeal to you. In pursuit of this, Walmart has applied for a number of patents that cover mechanisms that allow for data mining individual users’ internet interests.
On July 8, 2014, Walmart received U.S. Patent No. 8,775,942 for a system which gathers a user’s internet history, analyzes the collected data in order to identify the user’s interests, and then makes content suggestions to the user. In its most basic form, this system will allow Walmart to give the user a customized internet experience in exchange for relevant data on the customer’s internet behavior. Once Walmart has this information, the user’s search account can be linked to his Walmart.com account. After spending some time leisurely surfing the internet, the user can log into his Walmart account and be presented with a number of customized advertisements tailored to his specific wants and needs.
Multiple pending applications indicate Walmart’s attention to customer-specific marketing. Two in particular detail the retailer’s tailored marketing approach for customers with lifestyle changes (U.S. Patent Publication 20140156395) and those customers whom are travelling (U.S. Patent Publication 20140156394). As Walmart pushes more into the e-commerce arena, the use of such techniques may become more pronounced.
Another beneficial use of Walmart’s data: helping customer’s determine the perfect gift. Multiple Walmart filings indicate a move towards gift recommendations based upon the gift receiver’s social media activity (U.S. Patent Publication 20140089132) and the determined giftabilty of a product (U.S. Patent Publication 20140067594). By analyzing product reviews and purchase requests for gift-wrapping, Walmart may have determined a step towards getting the perfect gift.
Addressing Consumer Dissatisfaction
Walmart wants to keep customers satisfied. One way of promoting customer satisfaction is to have plenty of customer service representatives available to help customers. On the other hand, having too many representatives standing around twiddling thumbs during non-peak hours results in inflated expenses. Walmart appears to be developing a system that uses biometric data to measure customer’s level of dissatisfaction (U.S. Patent Publication 20140147018). Once dissatisfaction of customers reaches a certain level or there are a certain number of angry customers, additional employees may be sent to an area to assist customers.
The system uses video cameras to monitor customers waiting to be checked out. These cameras will have the ability to measure blood pressure and heart rate, which may then be used to identify angry or impatient customers. Once the system identifies a certain level of angry customers, the system can generate a “customer service action” and send more representatives to assist the angry customers. Such a response is crucial for Walmart, because this can allow them to avoid angering a customer, thus retaining a future shopper. Further, the patent application indicates that Walmart plans on using this customer feedback to not only prevent in-store customer dissatisfaction, but to reach out to past customers lost as a result of dissatisfaction. If Walmart can obtain data providing rationale for customer attrition, it’s possible to then provide appropriate incentives to recoup the customer.
Another key component to customer satisfaction is store presentation. Clean stores present well. If there is a spill or the floors are dirty, not only does this make the store look bad, but it creates a shopping hazard and liability to the retailer. With the end goal being to minimize the time between an accident happening and the resulting mess being cleaned up, Walmart’s spill-detection system (U.S. Patent Publication 20140168427) analyzes images captured from cameras within the store and notifies an employee via a mobile device that there’s a spill on Aisle 3. The system could be complex enough to determine the exact nature of the spill, such as whether it is a liquid spill or some type of solid matter. By utilizing an automated system, Walmart could potentially reduce its employee costs.
A dysfunctional shopping cart detracts from store presentation. Walmart has applied for a patent (U.S. Patent Publication 20140167960) that works to preempt this problem by listening for the defective carts. Microphones strategically planted around the store record the sounds made by the carts and that sound is then analyzed by a computer for frequencies that are associated with defective carts. Upon detection of a defective cart, a store employee is alerted by the computer with the location of the cart or some other means of identification.
One of the biggest hassles associated with visiting a retailer is the problem of finding a place to park. Parking frustrations are a key problem with keeping customers coming back to the store. Walmart is working on confronting this problem by using a mobile application to direct you where to park (U.S. Patent Publication 2014076348). The system employs sensors to analyze a Walmart parking lot in order to identify unoccupied spaces. The system can then considers the customer’s parking preferences. Then, the system will transmit directions to the consumer displaying the most direct route to the parking space. As an added bonus, the customer can receive directions back to their vehicle once they leave the store.
Managing Inventory & Logistics
Aside from enhancing the customer experience and relationship with Walmart, Walmart has always worked on fine-tuning its logistics to lower its bottom line. In recent years, Walmart has worked to improve inventory management and in-store traffic. The patent filings indicate a continued drive to improve its internal practices.
We mentioned before the use of customer data alerting a customer to reorder a consumer good (U.S. Patent Publication 20140156423). This data truly serves two purposes: alerting the customer to restock on toothpaste and potentially reducing the inventory load Walmart needs on hand. If the customer purchases the toothpaste online, then Walmart does not need to stock as much in-store. However, if the customer data indicates that customer only purchases within a certain Walmart store, Walmart can anticipate the purchase and stock the toothpaste. Obviously, there are potential hiccups to this application of data, but there is potential in reducing costs if the inventory forecasts prove to be accurate.
Beyond managing the supply chain outside the store, the internal store inventory management has pitfalls as well. A known issue is timing for restocking shelves. Store inventories provide reasonable data regarding the store’s inventory. However, inventory can move around the store by customers moving products. When shoppers take items to inspect or with the intention of buying, but then abandon the product elsewhere in the store, the inventory system does not reflect that the shelves are empty. Walmart appears to be moving towards smart shelving to combat this problem. Multiple Walmart patent filings indicate shelves may soon monitor their inventory through the use of scales to analyze the weight of product contained upon the shelf or radio frequency identification technology to communicate wireless to the inventory system the quantity of remaining product.
The world’s largest retailer clearly recognizes that innovation is one way to succeed in the current economy. Walmart continues to push its use of technology forward, providing new inventions and practices to move it forward. As data acquisition continues, we expect more innovations from the retail giant to drive customer engagement.