Walmart’s R&D focuses on crowd management, social media shopping tools

By Steve Brachmann
November 30, 2015

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“Walmart Store Exterior” by Walmart. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Walmart (NYSE:WMT) of Bentonville, AR, is a multinational retail corporation that operates a wide range of brick-and-mortar retail locations, including discount department stores, grocery stores and hypermarkets. In mid-November, Walmart posted its earnings, revealing that it had beat estimates on earnings per share (EPS) by five cents, posting an EPS of $1.03 per share over predictions of $0.98 per share. Same-store sales also increased by 1.5 percent in the most recent quarter, the fifth consecutive quarter in which Walmart saw this metric rise. Walmart also saw $72.7 billion in net sales in the most recent quarter, a 3.8 percent increase over the previous year’s third quarter results. Interestingly, late quarter revenues may have been at least somewhat bolstered by sales of the Pattie LaBelle Sweet Potato Pie, a bakery store item which sold at the rate of one pie per second over a 72-hour period in mid-November.

Black Friday is a major event for American retailers from coast to coast and Walmart is no exception. The corporation has been gearing up with a “Dare to Compare” online marketing campaign which encourages consumers to compare Walmart’s prices with other retailers like Amazon.com (NASDAQ:AMZN) or Target (NYSE:TGT). This campaign is yet another indication of the growing trend towards e-commerce being pursued by major American retailers, a topic we’ve been covering here on IPWatchdog. In-store Black Friday traffic is typically robust but has created issues for the retailer in the past; a 62-year-old New Mexico woman recently filed a lawsuit against Walmart after she was trampled during 2012’s Black Friday event. Although Walmart has promised more Walmart 2015 text clustereffective crowd management safety plans to deal with major sales events like Black Friday but a recent Reuters report shows that Walmart store space has been growing much more rapidly than employee hires over the past decade, which would seem to indicate a reduced ability to manage crowd safety.

Thus far in 2015, Walmart has been issued a total of 71 patents from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, a total which is 22 patents greater than the amount earned by Walmart over the same period last year. The text cluster provided by Innography’s patent portfolio tools shows us that shopping is the focus of a great deal of Walmart’s research and development aims. However, we’re also seeing significant forays into radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags, digital receipts and store locations.

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Walmart’s Issued Patents: From Retail Route Planning to Augmented Realities for Sales Assistance

A digital receipt innovation designed to help Walmart employees conduct better in-store audits after customer checkouts to reduce theft is discussed within U.S. Patent No. 9165276, titled Locating and Organizing Digital Receipt Data for Use in In-Store Audits. It claims a method for reordering digital receipt data for use in an in-store audit involving receiving digital receipt data for a sales transaction conducted at a point-of-sale (POS) system in a store location, generating a digital receipt for the sales transaction including an entry for each purchased item, receiving an indication that the sales transaction will be audited in a store location, referring to audit rules defining an audit priority for each purchased item, reordering the receipt entries of the digital receipt based on the defined audit priority and sending the reordered receipt entries to an auditor mobile device in the store location. This invention intends to improve upon the marginal success in stopping store theft achieved by in-store auditors by presenting auditors with a priority list of which items are most important to audit.

scanable recipeHome chefs may be interested to further explore the innovation outlined within U.S. Patent No. 9135652, titled Scannable Recipe Card to Add Items to Shopping List. The computer-implemented method for adding products to a shopping list disclosed here involves associating a recipe identification code with a recipe, receiving the recipe identification code from a mobile device at an application server and transmitting product information to the mobile computing device which pertains to products required for the recipe. This system is intended to provide a meal-centric method for inputting a grocery list into a smartphone or mobile device for an improved shopping experience. Improved shopping experiences for customers at store locations is also featured within U.S. Patent No. 9070094, titled Techniques for Optimizing a shopping agendaShopping Agenda. This protects a computer-implemented method for receiving an electronic shopping list containing items sold by a retailer, determining a store location of the retailer where products can be purchased, determining product waypoints corresponding to product locations and a store map, determining a checkout waypoint corresponding to a checkout lane and based on the number of items in the electronic shopping list and then providing the store map, product waypoints and checkout waypoint for display. This innovation is designed to help customers better plan a shopping trip without having to visit an aisle multiple times to find different items.

Social media technologies were another area of R&D focus for Walmart, as is evidenced by the issue of U.S. Patent No. 9171326, titled System and Method for Making Gift Recommendations Using Social Media Data. The computer-implemented method for user profiling protected here involves evaluating a plurality of textual actions of a user comprising online social media activities, identifying concepts for each textual action using natural language processing and the calculation of candidate scores for multiple concepts, and then generating a user interest profile for a user based on identified concepts. This innovation serves as a way that consumers can find better ideas for gifts based on the social media activity of an intended recipient. Methods for aggregating useful information from social content is at the center of U.S. Patent No. 9183270, issued under the title Social Genome. It discloses a system for processing streaming data including processing nodes on computing hardware in a distributed architecture, a semantic analysis engine operable on a processing node which applies natural language processing techniques to characterize text from a social media post and relationships in social media content, a mapper at a processing node that publishes an attribute-value pair comprising a stream ID and value, and then an updater at a processing node storing information in memory over a rolling time window. This system for identifying connections among social elements, which can include people, places or events, is designed to pursue more effective marketing decisions.

sales assistanceWe were also intrigued to see an augmented reality technology developed by Walmart and protected by the issue of U.S. Patent No. 9082149, titled System and Method for Providing Sales Assistance to a Consumer Wearing an Augmented Reality Device in a Physical Store. It discloses a computer-implemented method implemented at a commerce server for a merchant having physical retail store locations which involves receiving a consumer-initiated electronic help request signal from an augmented reality (AR) device worn by a consumer which has a camera to identify a consumer’s location and orientation, determining the identity of an item based on a video signal and a motion signal, accessing consumer characteristics data from a consumer database, accessing item characteristics from an items database, accessing sales assistant characteristics from a sales assistant database including an indication of past success providing remote assistance for a product category, selecting an appropriate sales assistant to help the consumer and linking the AR device in communication with an electronic computing device operated by the selected sales assistant to facilitate further electronic communication. This technology is intended to help consumers at large retail locations who needs help finding a particular item by connecting them directly with a sales assistant knowledgeable about that product’s particular sector, like home furnishings or grocery.

 

Patent Applications of Note: From Crowd Management Systems to Identifying Fault Shopping Carts

price matchingWalmart’s “Dare to Compare” marketing campaign will likely get a boost from innovations such as the one outlined within U.S. Patent Application No. 20150178792, titled Methods and Systems to Provide Price Matching Offers to Potential Customers. It would protect a computer-implemented method of receiving a picture of a receipt from a competing store by a customer, processing the receipt picture using optical character recognition, identifying a product on a receipt purchased by a customer a competing store, identifying the price at which the product was purchased, determining if a corresponding product is sold by the store, determining that the competing product was purchased for a lower price and transmitting a coupon equal to a price difference to the customer. This method is designed to encourage potential customers to interact with a store, increasing the chances that they’ll purchase products from the store. Real-time pricing adjustments based on competitor prices is discussed within U.S. Patent Application No. 20150317659, which is titled Dynamic Pricing Systems and Methods. The method that would be protected here involves receiving an indication of the occurrence of multiple events unrelated to a particular customer, determining whether to adjust a price associated with a particular item based on the events and determining a new price for the item based on the events and in response to a determination to adjust an item’s price. This innovation is designed to reduce the time and labor consumed by in-store price adjustments, whether those adjustments are seasonal or in response to competitor pricing.

Safer crowd management systems that would help Walmart control the Black Friday rush are featured within U.S. Patent Application No. 20150248629, filed under the title Crowd Planning Tool. The crowd management planning system claimed here involves a plurality of store servers coupled to a network, the central server having an interface coupled to a network, a database and a crowd planning module coupled to the interface and database to communicate with a plurality of store servers, providing each with a crowd planning tool. This system is intended to prevent disorder or anger in crowds which can create an unsafe situation in response to a sales event or a fire alarm.

digital watermarkAnother digital receipt technology meant to help consumers better manage their own digital receipts is at the center of U.S. Patent Application No. 20150319333, which is titled Digital Watermark Feature for Device to Device Duplication of a Digital Receipt. This would protect a computer-implemented process to create a watermarked copy of a unique original copy of an electronic sales receipt in a first computerized device to a second computerized device through creating the watermarked copy of the electronic receipt by copying information from the original copy of the electronic sales receipt to the watermarked copy and providing the electronic watermark within the watermarked copy. This system would allow customers to manage electronic sales receipts in multiple computing devices while indicating on a receipt whether the receipt is the original or a copy.

Social tools for finding better retail items to purchase as gifts are the target of U.S. Patent Application No. 20150206225, which is titled System and Method for Providing a Gift Exchange. The method claimed here involves receiving multiple parameters for a gift exchange from the gift exchange’s organizer comprising a set of participants and a budget, identifying a gift exchange recipient for a respective participant in the set of participants, determining gifts for the gift exchange recipient based on the budget and a first trust graph and arranging the determined gifts for display to the participant. This innovation is intended to improve gift exchange programs by helping gift exchange participants obtain recommendations for gifts from those who have a close association with the intended recipient, improving the chances that the recommendation will be useful.

purchasing fuelWalmart is looking to improve its ability to provide fuel to vehicle owners at retail locations with the technology detailed within U.S. Patent Application No. 20150120474, titled System and Method for Dispensing and Purchasing Fuel. This would protect a system for purchasing fuel including a local device for retrieving information identifying a fuel dispensing station from which a person desires to purchase fuel, a remote server connected with the local device which receives the identification information and a unique identifier; the remote server then generates and transmits an unlock code to the fuel dispensing station. This system is intended to streamline the process of purchasing fuel at a station without requiring user interaction with a cashier or self-checkout station.

Finally, we were intrigued to take a closer look at a technology for identifying issues with shopping carts, which is the focus of U.S. Patent Application No. 20150088366, entitled Faulty Cart Wheel Detection. It discloses a computer-implemented method of detecting a faulty cart wheel by receiving an image sequence depicting a cart, identifying a swiveling wheel of the cart, determining an observed oscillation frequency of the swiveling wheel and transmitting an alert regarding the cart if the observed oscillation frequency exceeds a threshold. This system helps store associates quickly identify a problematic cart which may cause frustration or discomfort in customers, discouraging them from further shopping.

The Author

Steve Brachmann

Steve Brachmann is a freelance journalist located in Buffalo, New York. He has worked professionally as a freelancer for more than a decade. He writes about technology and innovation. His work has been published by The Buffalo News, The Hamburg Sun, USAToday.com, Chron.com, Motley Fool and OpenLettersMonthly.com. Steve also provides website copy and documents for various business clients and is available for research projects and freelance work.

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