- Wal-Mart is evaluating a prototype automated robotic shopping cart from Five Elements Robotics capable of helping customers shop, move through checkout and out to the parking lot without having to push the carts themselves, according to a Bloomberg Technology report.
- Wendy Roberts, founder and CEO of Five Elements Robotics, acknowledged at a Bloomberg Technology conference this week that her company is working on a project with the "world's largest retailer," a title that has been bestowed yearly on Wal-Mart by retail market watchers.
- Bloomberg reports that a source familiar with the cart trial identified Wal-Mart as the retailer in question. Wal-Mart declined comment.
Wal-Mart is investing in a variety of new technologies to enable better and easier shopping experiences in its brick-and-mortar stores. Robotics represents just the latest technology concept on Wal-Mart's drawing board, as the behemoth retailer also has been experimenting with drones for applications such as delivery of online orders and inventory tracking at its massive distribution centers, as well as other innovations.
The real viability of a "driverless" robotic shopping cart could be debated at length (along with the implications for the physical health of customers who just aren't feeling up to pushing their own carts around), but what's significant here is how Wal-Mart continues to cast a wide net as it evaluates how an array of potentially disruptive technologies might be used to gain an edge against competitors that used e-commerce technology to disrupt the traditional brick-and-mortar retail model.
In its effort to keep that competition at bay and retain that title of "world's largest retailer" for the foreseeable future, Wal-Mart invested more than $10.5 billion in IT in 2015, leading research firm IDC's list of the world's top technology spenders. But the retail giant is in the midst of negotiating a difficult transition: It's spending more money on new technology that might enhance customer shopping experiences or improve store operational efficiencies, even as the cost of that new technology also could factor into an expected decrease in profit this year. Most new technology investment requires an upfront financial bet which has to produce a payoff at some point.
Fresh thinking about how to use these technologies might help Wal-Mart's case in that regard. Robotics, for example, is not new to retail environments, but mostly has been used in the supply chain. As automation is migrating into every facet of retail, using robotics to change the customer shopping experience, whether via an automated shopping cart or some other gadget, could help refresh the appeal of spending the better part of a Saturday afternoon down at the old brick-and-mortar outlet.