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Drones Could Be the Future of Customer Service in Walmart Stores

In case you thought that Amazon had a lock on eyebrow-raising drone patents, Walmart is here to remind you that it’s thinking about how tech could play out in the not-so-distant future, too.

The big-box retailer’s recent patent news, as reported by Gizmodo, details drones not airbombing customers’ property with packages a la Amazon, but unmanned aerial vehicles offering shoppers in-store assistance. That is, Walmart envisions customers using their smartphones (likely via the Walmart app) to summon a drone that can help verify product prices or literally guide customers to a product of interest. However, there are no details yet on how Walmart and these theoretical drones would help shoppers find a product that’s technically in stock but not located where it should be—unless RFID or some other sort of location-based tagging were enabled.

Walmart’s tech vision also applies to a patent for wearables that would track shoppers throughout their in-store journey “to determine information about tasks being performed by the wearers of the wearable devices,” according to the patent filing abstract. Additional details on benefits to the consumer are unclear. A patent for a smart cart shows how Walmart is thinking about improving upon existing investments (the shopping cart) by adding technology that could aid shoppers by communicating the total value of the products they’ve collected during their shopping journey.

Interestingly, when queried about the future technologies of greatest interest, global consumers surveyed for a new iVend report voted for “automatic payment using digital shopping carts” (39.2%) ahead of interactive fitting rooms (24.9%), augmented and virtual reality (19.7%) and in-store robots (15.6%).

Yet other patent clues point to a potential increase in automation in Walmart stores and services, such as the filing for “systems and methods for autonomous item identification” as well as the “autonomous vehicle content identification system.” It looks more and more like Walmart wants orders picked, packed and ferried to customers’ doors with as little human involvement as possible, which could boost both fulfillment speed and accuracy.

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Walmart and Amazon seem to be locked in a tit-for-tat tech battle as each seeks to gain the upper hand in innovation in addition to customers’ share of wallet. Long known for low prices and little else, Walmart has made big tech moves in recent years, investing heavily in cloud systems, acquiring and partnering with Lord&Taylor to bolster e-commerce, and improving its mobile app capabilites, even as Amazon expands its influence from online to off through a small chain of book shops as well as the Whole Foods acquisition.