Walmart is patenting 'mini-robot' technology that could have terrifying implications for workers

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Walmart just patented a system based on mini-robots that can control shopping carts, as well as complete a long list of duties once reserved for human employees.

Last week, Walmart was granted a patent for a new system that allows shopping carts to drive themselves, untouched by customers and employees. However, the system goes far beyond self-driving carts, with details on automated devices that can do much of the work a human employees would do.

According to the patent, "motorized transport units" are tools that attach to shopping carts, allowing the carts to drive freely around the store, be summoned to customers, and move safely into docks instead of clogging up parking lots. The system uses a combination of sensors, video cameras, a wireless network, and a central computer.

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But, Walmart's plans are bigger than cleaning up carts more efficiently. These motorized units can also potentially move containers; scan, retrieve, and deliver products; check inventory; retrieve trash; and even connect with customers. And, the patent says that Walmart is not limiting what else the motorized units can be configured to do.

While the patent describes the motorized unit's role as enhancing a shopping experience and assisting customers or employees, the new tech could be bad news for Walmart employees.

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Wal-Mart's top holiday toys of 2016
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Wal-Mart's top holiday toys of 2016

Num Noms Lipgloss Truck, $29.94

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Doc McStuffins Hospital Care Cart, $49.98

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Hatchimals, $59.97
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Walmart has come under fire for a number of issues with staffing and employees in recent months.

More than 200 violent crimes have been committed so far this year at Walmart locations across the US, with Bloomberg arguing that the rise in crime is linked to the retailer understaffing stores. Cost-cutting policies that started in the early 2000s resulted in a drop in store quality, while the loss of greeters and the rise of self-checkout scanners made shoplifting and other illegal activities easier to engage in without employees noticing.

The patent's authors argue that the new, tech-heavy system could improve customers' in-store experience and solve problems that Walmart employees cannot.

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"In a modern retail store environment, there is a need to improve the customer experience and/or convenience for the customer," reads the patent's background section, which notes issues including insufficient employees in peak hours, under-trained workers due to high-turnover rate, messy aisles, and theft.

"All of these issues can result in low customer satisfaction or reduced convenience to the customer," the patent continues. "With increasing competition from non-traditional shopping mechanisms, such as online shopping provided by e-commerce merchants and alternative store formats, it can be important for 'brick and mortar' retailers to focus on improving the overall customer experience and/or convenience."

Further, the benefits of a more-fully automated store are particularly appealing for retailers as labor costs rise, according to analysts.

While Walmart CEO Doug McMillon announced $2.7 billion in spending on wages and training last year, labor activists argue that the retailer still underpays employees and continue to call for higher pay.

Walmart did not respond to Business Insider's request to comment, and has not provided any information regarding if or when the new system would roll out in stores.

With robots that can drive shopping carts and preform a wide array of other employee duties, Walmart could cut the number of employees on payroll while also improving customer experience. Automation is already taking over the fast-food industry — and it looks like the budget retail business might be next.

NOW WATCH: We tested Walmart's ice-cream sandwiches, which supposedly don't melt, and were mystified by the results

9 ways to save money at Walmart:

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9 secret ways to save money at Walmart
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9 secret ways to save money at Walmart

1. Take Advantage of Walmart's Price Matching Policy 

Even if Walmart isn’t offering the lowest price on a given item, you can take advantage of the store’s price match policy to secure a better deal. Walmart will match any advertised price from stores in your area, said Paul Ivanovsky, creator of IHeartTheMart.com, a blog dedicated to saving money at Walmart. To qualify, the items in question must be identical and in stock at the other retailer. According to Ivanovsky, the price matching policy is a great way to save money on items such as fruit, meat and paper products.

Additionally, Walmart will match many online competitors’ prices for home goods and other non-food items. While restrictions exist, the retail giant will generally match prices for goods from Amazon.com, BestBuy.com, Target.com and TigerDirect.com, among other stores.

Photo credit: vvoe/Shutterstock.com

2. Get Online Prices in the Store

Before you make a purchase in one of its stores, see if Walmart is offering a better price online, as the company will match Walmart.com prices for in-store purchases. Bethany Halford, co-creator of the Whoa, Wait. Walmart? blog that features great finds at Walmart, said she frequently finds items that have been marked down online but not in the stores.

To get the better price, she pulls the item up on her phone and shows it to the cashier when she checks out. Recently, Halford saved a couple dollars when she found a pair of slippers selling for $12.88 in the store and about $10 online.

Photo credit: iStock.com/Larry Herfindal

3. Use the Savings Catcher App

If you forgot to check other stores’ prices before shopping at Walmart, you still can take advantage of the retailer’s price match policy after the fact by using the Savings Catcher app. After scanning your receipt with the app, you can compare the prices you paid with local competitors’ advertised rates, Ivanovsky said. If an item you bought is cheaper elsewhere, you will be credited the difference in the form of Savings Catcher Rewards Dollars, which can be redeemed for a Walmart gift card or Walmart Buck$ to be added to a Bluebird by American Express Card prepaid debit card.

“Even if you don’t think you bought something that can be matched, you might be surprised at what the Savings Catcher finds for you,” said Dian Farmer of GroceryShopForFree.com.

Photo credit: iStock.com/LDProd

4. Get Free Shipping From Walmart.com

Shipping costs can quickly negate the savings you might accumulate by shopping online. However, there are two ways you can get free shipping from Walmart.com. If you spend $50 or more online, Walmart will ship your purchases for free, Halford said. While there’s a flat $4.97 shipping fee for orders less than $50, shoppers can get around that fee by having online purchases shipped to their local stores, said Amanda Jerkins, the other co-creator of Whoa, Wait. Walmart?

It’s important to note that perishable products, hazardous materials and items weighing more than 350 pounds aren’t eligible for free store pickup. With many other items, though, you can pick them up the same day you order them online.

Photo credit: chrisdorney/Shutterstock.com

5. Comb Through the Clearance Racks

If you rush through your Walmart trips, you might miss out on some of the retailer’s best clearance deals. Typically, deeply discounted items are placed in an aisle near the toy or lawn and garden department, Halford said. When she and Jerkins comb through the clearance racks, they often find that items they were coveting at full price are now on sale for much less.

For example, Jerkins said she recently found a floor lamp she wanted that was marked down from $45 to $20 in the clearance section. She also recommends checking the end caps on aisles throughout the store for heavily discounted items.

Photo credit: Kzenon/Shutterstock.com

6. Shop Early in the Morning for Grocery Deals

If your local Walmart has a grocery department, you can save money by timing your food shopping trips right. Farmer recommends shopping early in the morning to score discounts on one of the priciest food items on your list — meat.

“Normally, by 8 a.m., the meat department has discounted their meat, and you can grab some great deals,” she said.

Photo credit: iStock.com/Steve Debenport

7. Tap Into Seasonal Savings

Walmart is known for offering great Black Friday sales. In fact, DealNews.com found that it was among the top five retailers with the best deals on Black Friday and the entire week of Thanksgiving. However, there are other times of the year when retailers offers savings, as well.

In particular, July has become a season for merchants to promote Black Friday-like deals, said Slickdeals.net consumer expert Regina Conway. In July of 2015, Walmart hosted a big sale to rival Amazon’s one-day sale for its Prime members, who pay a $99 annual fee for free two-day shipping and other benefits. Amazon has already announced plans to hold the event again, and Conway anticipates that Walmart will do the same. As an added bonus, Walmart doesn’t require any sort of membership fee to take advantage of its deals.

Photo credit: txking/Shutterstock.com

8. Get $1 Deals

Some of the items you can find at a dollar store can also be purchased at Walmart for $1 or less — and you don’t even have to ask for price matching. For example, Walmart sells personal grooming products such as deodorant and shampoo for about $1. You also can find greeting cards and gift bags for $1, although the selection is smaller than what you’d see at a traditional dollar store.

Ivanovsky keeps a running list on IHeartTheMart.com of Walmart’s current dollar deals.

Photo credit: Khomkrit Phonsai/Shutterstock.com

9. Get Free Grocery Pickup

Walmart has rolled out a new service in some cities that doesn’t cost a dime to use and can save shoppers a lot of valuable time: grocery pickup. Customers in Atlanta, Nashville, Colorado Springs, Tucson, Charlotte, Fayetteville, Salt Lake City and Ogden can now order their groceries online and then pick them up at select stores in their areas. You can even select a time for your pickup, and an associate will load the groceries into your car.

Follow the above tips on your next Walmart trip, and you will likely be smiling as brightly as the retailer’s trademark logo.

Related: 6 Grocery Delivery Services That Are Worth the Money

Photo credit: iStock.com/IPGGutenbergUKLtd

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