As Walmart prepares to launch robotic shopping carts, I wonder if the world is ready for them. Images of out-of-control shopping carts careening into parked cars, or children using mobile phones to race carts around the parking lot, keep springing to mind.

 Plus, regular shopping carts are already expensive, costing retailers anywhere from $75 to $400 each. Self-driving ones are bound to cost more and - with the very real problem of shopping cart theft – they could ramp up retailers’ costs, which would normally be passed onto consumers.

The carts, guided by sensors and video cameras, are intended to let shoppers summon carts using their smartphones, and then dispatch them back to the storage area when they are finished. Staffs can then concentrate on filling shelves or working at checkout, rather than rounding up carts throughout the store and in the parking lot– or further.

 Upon thinking about it some more, there may be some very valuable uses for these carts beyond the obvious labor-saving aspects. Integration with other systems is key; with the right tracking technology, for example, sensors could help retailers keep an eye on their carts, so that thieves don’t take off with them. Monitoring technology can ensure your competitors don’t hack into the system and steal the carts – either to use themselves or to flummox your store!

Connected to an inventory management system, carts could determine highly accurate real-time inventory as customers move them around the store. This would ensure an accurate, up-to-the-minute view of what shelves need restocking and what products are selling fast.  Incorporating real-time analytics and process orchestration allows supply chain and merchandising processes to respond in real-time to what is happening in the store.

 This is a great Internet of Things (IoT) use case, which could be taken even further. Having the ability to connect robo-carts to existing systems to make insights the carts gain actionable is imperative, as is having a real-time response to what the cart finds. Smart retailers applying this technology will automatically respond via process orchestration, ensuring problems are eliminated and opportunities are benefited from – i.e. the retail moment.

 Sensors could transmit information to report planogram compliance to head office to assist with a consistent shopping experience.  Customer movement patterns can be leveraged by merchandise planners to optimize layout and understand impact of promotional areas.

 Sensor-equipped carts could form part of a Smart Store Monitoring solution, advising when a “clean-up on Aisle One” is needed. Or they could detect product theft before a perpetrator leaves the building. 

 But many of these possibilities could be attained by adding sensors to existing carts, ones that customers freely push around, without the need for complex autonomous movement technology.  Surely this makes sense as first step and has a more compelling business case in the medium term?  Once this is established, maybe then the world will be ready for robo-carts.

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