Walmart has been awarded a U.S. patent for a "listening to the front end" technology that potentially could be used to build a system of sensors to monitor various shopping activities inside of a store, including listening to interactions between store associates and shoppers, according to news first reported by Buzzfeed.
The patent describes how a "system of sensors" could be implemented in a portion of a store, such as a checkout area, and how an analysis of the resulting audio of noises such as shopping cart movement, information about the number of shopping bags used and conversations between the associate and the customer could be used to create a "performance metric" for store employees.
The report comes several months after Amazon received two patents for "haptic feedback" devices that could be worn by employees of its fulfillment center to assist them in their jobs and track their locations at a given time, according to a post from HR Dive, a Retail Dive sister publication.
Walmart describes a pretty specific potential application for this technology, and it hints at a couple more. But that doesn't necessarily mean that Walmart will build out a system that monitors in-store audio.
If the company were to go that route, Walmart would have to be careful about defusing potential privacy concerns from both staff and shoppers. Operators of brick-and-mortar stores are aggressively adopting new in-store technologies to redefine and improve the shopping experience. However, something like in-store virtual reality usage could take years to become commonplace, while other technologies, like robotics, face other challenges, namely not upsetting the dynamics of human interaction between store employees and customers.
Audio monitoring could make associates and shoppers feel their privacy is being infringed on — a line that Walmart will have to toe carefully. Then again, audio playbacks from the system could be used to help associates get better at their jobs, in turn better serving shoppers. Ultimately, almost every aspect of the in-store experience is becoming influenced by and infused with new technology, but making both employees and customers comfortable with more technology is a process that must be negotiated.
Regardless of what happens with this technology, the patent is the latest evidence that Walmart is almost as aggressive as Amazon in pursuing technologies that might come in handy at some point in the future. Within the last year, Walmart sought a patent for the concept of a floating warehouse that could dispatch delivery drones, an idea that may sound crazy right now but could come closer to reality if delivery drones catch on.
Amazon, meanwhile, has led the way in seeking patents related to things like artificial intelligence and drone delivery. It also reportedly spends more on R&D annually than any other U.S technology company. Walmart has a dual challenge. The company needs to keep redefining and improving its own stores, while also keeping up with Amazon in the race not only to innovate faster, but to lay claim to the innovations that prove most valuable.