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Instant Analysis: Wal-Mart is Showing Us the Future with Self-Driving Shopping Carts

By Jeremy Bowman – Sep 19, 2016 at 6:06PM

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The retail giant is stepping up its innovation efforts. So far, they seem to be paying off.

Image Source: Wal-Mart.  

What happened

Wal-Mart (WMT -0.46%) took its latest step to reinvent itself by filing a patent for a self-driving shopping cart last week. The world's largest retailer has patented a technology that will allow customers to summon shopping carts with their phones and use them hands-free. The carts will also guide customers through the store to the items on their shopping list, and return themselves to a station in the parking lot, saving on customer and employee labor.

The company also hopes the carts can help save further on labor by assisting with moving and checking inventory and retrieving other merchandise.

The robotic shopping cart is just the company's latest innovation -- it's also made steps to get drones approved for delivery and merchandise checking in the warehouse, and rolled out hundreds of kiosks in store parking lots where customers can pick up groceries they've ordered online.

Does it matter?

Wal-Mart needs to stay at the forefront of technology as it competes with Amazon.com and the rest of retail. While a self-driving shopping cart may not match the convenience of e-commerce, the vast majority of Wal-Mart's sales are going to come from its stores for probably decades no matter how much it invests in e-commerce. That's why it spent billions on higher wages, training, and improving store appearance. It also explains the online grocery pickup program.

Its stores are its biggest differentiator over a company like Amazon, so it's crucial that the company make the shopping experience as pleasant as possible.

Wal-Mart's recent efforts seem to be paying off. Same-store sales reached their fastest clip in several years in its most recent quarter at 1.6%, and the company also reversed a 2-year slide in e-commerce sales growth thanks in part to the grocery pick-up program. 

There's no word yet on when the self-driving cart will come to fruition, but look for similar innovations to come out of the retail giant in the near future. 

Jeremy Bowman has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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