Can Walmart dash past Amazon with its own product replenishment system?

Source: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office - Patent #: US20170124633
May 08, 2017
Tom Ryan

Moving a step beyond’s Dash button, Walmart is seeking to patent a delivery system that automatically reorders items when they run out.

Walmart’s system would place an internet-connected tag that makes use of RFID, Bluetooth, NFC or some other technology on products to monitor usage. Once an item is close to empty or worn out, a replenishment, replacement or upgrade would be automatically ordered.

“For example,” the patent states, “a user may pick up a toothbrush and place it back down, suggesting the use of the toothbrush, and from the servings of a tube of toothpaste, the system can deduce how much toothpaste is left and when it should be refilled. In another example, the system can monitor clothes entering a washing machine, and from this information the predicted durability of replacement needed on each article of clothing may be determined.”

Consumers would place readers in their homes to track the tags, such as one in a refrigerator for reading tags on food items or one on a washer or closet for reading tags on clothes.

Beyond auto-replenishment, the systems would gather usage data such as how frequently a product is used, what time of day it is used, and where it is located in the house. The data could be used to assist with personalized advertising, predictive demand management, and customer profiling for market segmentation needs, the patent states.

The data access might also provide cross-selling opportunities. In another example, Walmart notes that timely suggestions for cookies and chocolate syrup could be triggered by milk usage information.

The system appears to be an upgrade to Amazon’s Dash, which lets consumers press a button to replenish an order of a specific item. Launched two years ago, Dash has now partnered with well over 300 brands, including last week’s addition of Calvin Klein underwear.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you see a big opportunity in merging IoT and home replenishment? Which aspects of Walmart’s patent do you think consumers will find appealing and/or concerning?

"I prefer the opportunity to look for variety in products and brands that comes from the ability to do it myself."
"This is another step closer to our Star Trek future where we talk to a computer and automatically have just about whatever we want..."
"If I have to place “readers” around my home and have automatic charges debited from my account, there had better be a darn good incentive."

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34 Comments on "Can Walmart dash past Amazon with its own product replenishment system?"

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Mark Ryski

While I do see certain applications for IoT replenishment, having my toothpaste monitored is a little too “George Jetson” for me and probably most people. The IoT juggernaut is in full motion, but I think home replenishment will be a slower build-up and likely not part of mainstream life for many years to come.

Phil Masiello

In theory these are all great concepts. In actuality you have to get the customer to reach out and use the system. Technology and AI are great tools. But if the consumers don’t embrace them and value them, then they aren’t valuable.

It will be difficult for any company, no matter how big, to break the bond Amazon has built with its customers.

Keith Anderson

This sounds similar to Amazon’s Dash Replenishment Service (DRS) which also directly integrates with appliances like water filters, washing machines and coffee makers.

It’s clear that competition has transcended individual items and transactions, establishing membership, replenishment and ecosystem integration as new frontiers for competition.

Amazon’s DRS, patent filings like these and even Whirlpool’s intent to acquire Yummly (a personalized recipe recommendation service) suggest that the supply side of the industry is ready to invest, but I expect at least a few years of experimentation and iteration before services like these become widely adopted.

Anne Howe

This is a bit too invasive for me. I prefer the opportunity to look for variety in products and brands that comes from the ability to do it myself. But then again, I’m no longer a time-starved, full-time working parent of three kids!

Tom Erskine
8 months 14 days ago

The Chips Ahoy just show up because my 10 year old ate them all? A new pair of jeans just appears because I’ve worn my old ones too many days in a row? While IoT and home replenishment show promise, when consumers lose control of the “buy” signal and intent to purchase, things get weird.

Paula Rosenblum

What could go wrong? I don’t like the Dash buttons (I find them vaguely insulting, actually — even I can remember from the laundry room to my computer that I need some laundry detergent) and I don’t like the idea of auto-replenishment either.

What if I want to change brands? Try something different? Check the current price?

I don’t know … maybe I’m just out of the demographic that thinks this is great. I am happy with various forms of subscription services I can use online and I can adjust them as needed. The rest seems like tech for tech’s sake and a bright shiny object rather than anything particularly useful.

David Dorf

Home replenishment is absolutely a future direction and Walmart’s solution looks to be superior to Amazon’s, but the simplicity of Dash will likely win this battle. Consumption varies by household, so tuning to accurately predict when a replacement is needed gets complicated. Simply pressing the Dash seems more straightforward and less error-prone.

Home replenishment will be a big deal in the future and the retailers that establish the infrastructure now will benefit most.

Sterling Hawkins

I give credit to Walmart for thinking ahead as it will be some time before IoT is this integrated into the world. It’s a process that more effectively starts with the manufacturers of more significant items (Brita water filters, etc.) and will work through the long tail of products to potentially include things like toothpaste down the line. Home replenishment is here and in the short term, it’s definitely Amazon that has the upper hand and stronger approach here.

Art Suriano

With each new technology comes the benefits and the risks. I can see the convenience and many customers loving that and I can also see the risk factor when the customer has an item or items reordered that they didn’t want. So for it to be successful, the customer would have to have the option of canceling an order before it is placed with perhaps a reminder and an easy option to change an item or items before the automatic renewal. Lastly, excessive advertising would be annoying so that too would have to be something the user could control.

Max Goldberg

Some consumers might enjoy the convenience of this Walmart system, others will be creeped out by its Big Brother-like data gathering. Then there is the accuracy factor. Can a tag really tell how much toothpaste I’m using each time I brush, or how many times underwear can be washed before it wears out? Personally, I think this patent crosses a privacy line that I don’t want to have crossed.

Lyle Bunn (Ph.D. Hon)

IoT for home replenishment based on deduction offers to leapfrog a scheduled delivery approach, which still has lots of potential market growth. IoT for replenishment has so much more value in other markets that I see home application as being a long way down the list behind office, manufacturing, health care, retail, B2B, utilities, etc. where the cost/benefit proposition is much higher.

Peter Charness

Eliminating shopping entirely? Be careful what you wish for.

Gene Detroyer
Do you remember Dick Tracy’s two-way wrist radio and how futuristic that sounded? Did you ever imagine you would be walking around with a computer in your pocket that was hundreds of times more powerful than the computer that took men to the moon? I have learned not to try to predict technology. It comes faster than I could have imagined. I will accept that part of it. So as to the future, I look for trends in consumer behavior. There is clearly a trend that emphasizes ease and convenience. Like I wrote just a few days ago in these discussions, “The real answer is coming in the future. Will consumers be able to purchase their needs without overtly interacting with any retailer or manufacturer? It is all about convenience. That is the trend and technology will only accelerate that trend.” We will reach a future where a consumer will never have to deal with a retailer/manufacturer/supplier to provide their needs. The IoT will provide not only for our needs but what we might want… Read more »
Ken Lonyai

This is the dream scenario for retailers, solving their marketing, inventory and customer data acquisition problems. I said “dream,” right?

Sure for some people, for some situations and for some products this makes sense. It will not become a widely adopted scenario, it will not have much impact on Walmart’s bottom line and it won’t make much of a dent into Amazon, if any.

It feels kinda-sorta like a shot back at Amazon from Mark Lore saying, “see we can come up with technology too!”

Steve Montgomery

This IoT application crosses the line and becomes IoP (Invasion of Privacy).

Ron Margulis

This is another step closer to our Star Trek future where we talk to a computer and automatically have just about whatever we want — a prepared meal, a bicycle seat, etc. — appear in a portal nearby. So yes, I see a big opportunity with IoT in the home replenishment cycle. I see an even bigger and more immediate opportunity with IoT in the manufacturing, store and office replenishment cycles. All those consumable items in the workplace are ripe for a Dash-like button which could be very good or very bad for companies like Staples and Grainger, depending how they play it. It will certainly be interesting to watch.

In the meantime, I’m waiting for Amazon or Walmart to announce that their efforts at teleportation are seeing positive results.

Doug Garnett

From everything I can see and read this is a niche service — important to a tiny corner of the market. So answering this question includes pondering whether it’s important that Walmart compete here.

Amazon has used their replenishment service for some brilliant PR (they love programs they can brag about while losing money). But has it mattered in their numbers? Certainly it hasn’t made it possible for them to make money on e-retail. And there’s a weakness in replenishment — it eliminates or reduces the opportunity for shoppers to increase their cart size by shopping.

Maybe Walmart can create more value than Amazon. And perhaps matching capabilities may have a tiny advantage in the tit-for-tat game that is competition. But neither Walmart nor Amazon will be able to make this feature into a significant part of their business.

Susan O'Neal
8 months 14 days ago

Amazon has changed the game from purchase power (which Walmart dominated with EDLP), to how quickly one can collapse the time between purchase intent and purchase. I think it’s the right context to think about, but the real question is how do consumers want to manage their purchase intent? A variety of factors play into why a consumer may prefer one retailer over another, as evidenced by the fact that 85 percent of consumers still cite supermarkets as the store they shop first and most frequently. Whoever best empowers the consumer to get the best of everything from the retailer they prefer will win — companies like Instacart and Adjoy fit into that category.

Tom Redd

I think that some of the key items in the kitchen and in home operations fit the IoT model. For instance, soy milk or furnace filters. These are a few areas that are required and solve kitchen screaming and lots of dusting. Walmart — if anyone — is a pro at service-level maintenance. Coop in EMEA/MEE is another shop totally zeroed-in on replenishing and maintaining high service levels. I would put the money on Walmart. This is a normal model and not a brand promotion. It’s not just a toy for adults like Dash or Dud or whatever it is called.

Ryan Mathews

There is a huge POTENTIAL opportunity in merging their IoT and home replenishment but it is totally dependent on whether or not consumers find value — to themselves — in the service. Nobody really wants to think about buying toothpaste or laundry soap or paper towels or dozens and dozens of other products, so — if a replenishment system really worked — it might be welcomed. However if I move my toothbrush several times a day when I wipe down my bathroom and Walmart ends up sending me dozens of toothbrushes a month as a result, I’m not sure it’s going to work out so well. As to concerns, the temptation is to say privacy but, remember, consumers who are concerned about privacy aren’t going to opt into such a system in the first place, so it’s sort of a moot point.

Shep Hyken

This is a big opportunity. It is essentially a subscription model based on consumption versus weekly, monthly, etc. I’ve always touted this as an excellent business model. Walmart’s solution (as Amazon’s) makes sense and is easy for the customer to use.

What may concern consumers is how much data on their habits are being picked up by Walmart (and others). The offer is that if you give me your data, we’ll give you a better experience. There are people who will embrace the concept of more personalization and others who will run from it.

Brandon Rael

It’s very apparent that the IoT revolution is in a parallel race with the progression of artificial intelligence becoming a part of our daily lives. While it’s very welcoming to enjoy all the personalization and curated assortments that surface out of Amazon’s and other e-commerce brands’ use of machine learning and AI, perhaps it is a bit premature in the innovation cycle for IoT to assume complete control of our home goods and hygiene needs.

Theoretically the IoT integration into home replenishment appears to be adding to a far more seamless customer experience. However it will be quite some time before its becomes an intuitive component of how we shop.

Vahe Katros

“Sure Walmart, you own the technology that makes the product smart and track everything so we can continue to ship soap powder like we did in the 1800s and you can manage and own all the data,” said no CPG company or manufacturer.

Jasmine Glasheen

So with the patent Walmart can make automatic, preset sales and they can track consumer behavior and product use — what’s the selling point for the customer?

If I have to place “readers” around my home and have automatic charges debited from my account, there had better be a darn good incentive. Not having to go online to order products isn’t a big enough pull for customers to make a concerted effort to surrender their privacy to Walmart.

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.

Depending upon the delivery system and the amount of products included, it may be more or less useful. If all the items I want are delivered to the house, that could be great. However if I still have to go to the store what is the point? Generating a list for me to take to the store would be better.

Adrien Nussenbaum

Before diving into IoT and AI for auto-replenishment, most retailers should focus on gaining the trust of consumers that they will have the right products available in the first place. American retailers have lost the assortment game to Amazon thus far. The first thing they must do is find a way to profitably offer the right products to customers, and then worry about auto replenishment.

Harley Feldman

IoT technologies can work to alert Walmart based on usage for product replenishment. This is done in many industries today, like aircraft or automobile replacement parts, based on usage and estimated end-of-life. The same or similar technologies could be used in Walmart’s customers’ homes. The issue is cost — how much will Walmart need to pay or charge its customers to offer the service? If it is free (underwritten completely by Walmart), customers will be more likely to want the service.

Being a current customer of a razor blade replenishment service, it is nice to be reminded to order blades on a periodic basis rather than have to remember to purchase or to run out. Walmart’s service would provide for this on a customer selected item basis. The customer concerns would center around the privacy of their data. However, consumers trade privacy for convenience every day, and Walmart’s service would be a welcome addition to many customers avoidance of having to remember to purchase replenishable items.

Stefan Weitz

As a guy who built a massive, global search engine, I can tell you the scenarios they describe in the patents are there for illustration, not for any real-time application any time soon. Besides the privacy concerns that some segment of consumers will undoubtedly have, the actual risk to being too clever with machine learning is high. In other words, if Facebook shows you a bad ad because of an error in their behavioral profile algorithm, it’s not a big deal. However, if Walmart sends you a new tube of toothpaste because of an issue with their algo, that is an entirely new problem.

Still, love the way Walmart is pushing hard on the future and investing heavily to keep Amazon at bay.

Kenneth Leung

Personally not a user of the Amazon Dash, but I can see the appeal for the time-crunched distracted family needing it. The toothpaste example is probably too extreme, but for certain items like detergents, dryer sheets, soap or a water filter that auto replenishment does make sense.

Ricardo Belmar
Certainly pushing predictive analytics and IoT to the limits! Amazon’s Dash buttons win because they deliver on the promise of convenience to customers, but don’t force customers to give up control. If Walmart’s application for this technology is truly to replenish automatically without consumer interaction, then it’s a total loss of control from the consumer handed over to Walmart. Maybe that’s the goal, after all in this “age of the consumer.” Many questions remain. What if a consumer wants to switch brands of toothpaste? How do they do that before the next tube shows up in a box at their door? For that matter, how do brands adapt to marketing to consumers now that the first choice of brand wins the autoreplenishment business? With Amazon Dash, brands still have some ability to win over a customer online. Like most other technologies, perhaps this will be dependent on product category for applicability. And at what point do CPG companies decide to just build in the functionality to the product itself and sync to a smartphone app… Read more »
Mark Price

Walmart’s system leverages the Internet of Things (IoT) to provide insight into consumer behavior that can permit the company to better anticipate consumer needs for replenishment. In theory, that is a very convincing proposition.

Now let’s look at the challenges:

  • What percent of Walmart consumers will permit the company to use their personal data to predict when they need product? Can’t they just reorder when they are getting low?
  • Providing consumer behavior data from RFID is not widely accepted at the moment. Younger consumers tend to be more willing than other groups, but that information must still be heavily permissioned.

and so on…

I guess the real question is: what is the consumer benefit here? I see lots of technology in search of a consumer benefit at the moment.

Jeff Miller

I love it when companies bury the lead. The lead in this case for Walmart is “The data could be used to assist with personalized advertising, predictive demand management, and customer profiling for market segmentation needs, the patent states.” This is as much a marketing patent as it is operational.

I agree with most people here that this a bit of a reach now because it takes out two important parts of shopping: 1) Do I really still want this product? and 2) cost and timing of purchase. People do not always have the same amount of funds or credit available.

Michelle Covey

Inventory visibility and item level accuracy are absolutely foundational to any new offering like this, whether it happens tomorrow or 10 years from now. We’re already seeing how the technologies mentioned (RFID, NFC, etc.) can help the entire industry transcend outdated supply chain processes and deliver the coveted seamless shopping experience. The right standards need to be in place to ensure all of the moving parts of the system are communicating on the same wavelength.

Ken Morris
IoT and home replenishment has some compelling possibilities, but they all depend on convincing consumers of the value of these services. Some of the predictive analytics around usage are interesting, however, will it be accurate enough to make it relevant for consumers? Will the usage predictions be more accurate than tracking how often individual consumers historically purchase specific items? My guess is that historical patterns are today just as accurate and less intrusive for the consumer. The other aspect of predicting need based on tracking usage may be a little creepy for some of us. Just like other tracking technologies such as customer identification, you need to understand what customers will accept and appreciate. There have been recent concerns about IoT hacking that has many people concerned. As I always say “just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.” The IoT has many useful potential applications, but I believe replenishment may not be one unless my milk carton is communicating to the retailer. As home appliances change to leverage the IOT there may be many… Read more »
"I prefer the opportunity to look for variety in products and brands that comes from the ability to do it myself."
"This is another step closer to our Star Trek future where we talk to a computer and automatically have just about whatever we want..."
"If I have to place “readers” around my home and have automatic charges debited from my account, there had better be a darn good incentive."

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