The Arkansas-based megaretailer has been keeping the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office busy over the last several months with a string of tech-driven patent applications, most recently one that aims to use the Internet of Things for the automatic purchase of products, according to documents the government released Thursday.
By enabling an IoT “environment” with a consumer’s consent through subscription, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. wants to implement what it’s characterizing as a management system that will monitor the use of certain items to figure out when products need to be reordered and do so automatically.
While the application is still just that and needs to be approved by the government, something that could take years, the patent envisions a world where a household or office never experiences the distress of unexpectedly running out of paper towels or ink cartridges.
“In modern society, where convenience is important to consumers, subscription services continue to evolve,” Wal-Mart said in the application. “Previous generations enjoyed some subscription services, such as the daily receipt of fresh milk directly from a local farm by a milkman.”
But whereas a midcentury milkman’s delivery came in the same amount on the same day every week, regardless of use, if Wal-Mart were delivering milk today, it would want a tracking or “replenishment” device involved, leaving the milkman to deliver when needed.
Amazon’s Dash device is similar, but Wal-Mart’s idea doesn’t require even the press of a button to get more laundry soap. Amazon also has an optional recurring delivery service, but it’s only available in monthly intervals.
Beyond wanting to track the level of a product for automatic reordering and delivery, Wal-Mart is also hoping to monitor the overall use and movement of a given item with “tag readers” placed in a consumer’s home.
“For example, a tag reader can be placed on a refrigerator for reading tags on food items, or on a washer for reading tags on clothes, or in a closet for reading tags on clothes, or at a tool-box space for reading tags on the tool box and/or tools within the box,” Wal-Mart explained in the application.
Through this tracking and analysis, the retailer is looking ahead to advancements in “cross-selling or advertising” and possibly even safety alerts or recall notifications when necessary.
A Wal-Mart representative could not be reached for comment on the patent.
Should this patent become practice, it could bring Wal-Mart’s technology one stride past Amazon. Competition between the retail behemoths seems to have been getting fiercer, especially since Marc Lore joined Wal-Mart as chief executive officer of its e-commerce segment after selling Jet.com to the company for $3.3 billion last year.
But Wal-Mart’s race against Amazon isn’t stopping at fashion acquisitions or the IoT.
Since September, the retailer has received approval for a number of high-tech patents, including one for an interactive virtual shopping list that allows store browsing through an augmented reality device and one for a “virtual queue,” which will hold a shopper’s place in line, essentially a computer version of a deli ticket.
Another patent Wal-Mart secured at the end of March details a method of checkout that goes off the weight of a shopper’s cart, eliminating the process of individually scanning items.
Specifically, the patent calls for a weight device configured in each shopping cart that will perform checks against an expected weight of a given item as a consumer shops and offers a running price total, creating a “rapid checkout” process that beats having to scan items at the end of a shopping trip.
This process can also work with the use of an iPad or similar device affixed to a cart that will take photos of each item and generate prices through a database. In either version, all that’s required before a customer can leave the store is verification of price and payment by a cashier.
Although this process falls a little short of Amazon’s “just walk out” shopping behind its planned Amazon Go grocery stores, the e-tailer had to delay the official opening of the stores after running into issues with the computer sensor technology that was supposed to pick up on each item removed from a shelf.
Amazon’s move into physical retail, with grocery outposts and soon bookstores, certainly hasn’t gone unnoticed by Wal-Mart, which in April began offering a discount for certain items that shoppers purchased online, but then picked up in-store.
At the time “Pickup Discount” initially rolled out, Wal-Mart admitted it is working to leverage the one asset it has over Amazon — its brick-and-mortar presence.
Wal-Mart’s executive vice president of central operations in the U.S., Mark Ibbotson, pointed out at the time that 90 percent of Americans live within 10 miles of a Wal-Mart location, giving the retailer a “unique opportunity to make every day a little easier for busy families.”
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