Walmart 3-D image patent lets online shoppers pick their produce

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Photo: Walmart
Jan 26, 2018
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Shefali Kapadia

Through a special arrangement, what follows is an excerpt of an article from Retail Dive, an e-newsletter and website providing a 60-second bird’s eye view of the latest retail news and trends.

A new patent from Walmart would allow consumers to view real images of their groceries — rather than stock images — before purchasing online, CB Insights reported.

Through the system, called the “Fresh Online Experience” (FOE), a customer orders an item based on a stock photo. A store associate then scans the exact item in Walmart’s inventory with a 3-D scanner and the image is sent to the customer to accept or reject the particular item.

The system places an “edible watermark” on the item selected by the consumer before the goods are delivered.

Walmart 3-D image patent lets shoppers pick their produce
Image credit: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

Although e-commerce has skyrocketed in recent years, many consumers have been reluctant to buy their food and groceries online, particularly because they want to see, feel and smell produce before buying it.

A study from Nielsen last year found more than half of customers worldwide have purchased clothes, books and music online. In comparison, less than a quarter of consumers have bought packaged or fresh groceries online.

Walmart’s patent is just the latest example of the store realizing the necessity to compete with Amazon.com.

Last fall, Walmart acquired Parcel, a same-day last-mile delivery company that allowed it to compete with Amazon Prime’s two-day delivery service. It also partnered with Deliv as a way of countering Amazon Key. Both services allow deliveries directly into a customers’ home or even refrigerator.

Walmart’s patent has the potential to break down one of the biggest barriers to consumers buying fresh groceries online. This time, the supermarket giant may have beaten Amazon to the punch. 

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Will enabling shoppers to view actual produce before purchasing be a necessary step to instill confidence in buying such products online? Is the system explained in the patent feasible or will it have to be significantly adjusted?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
Braintrust
"As long as the photos show scale, consumers might like it."
"...on the face of it I wonder if it’s one of those cases of technology for the sake of it, rather than technology that is really solving an issue."
"This is an interesting patent in isolation, but ultimately it does not complete the resistance as smell and touch are still missing."

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20 Comments on "Walmart 3-D image patent lets online shoppers pick their produce"


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Art Suriano
BrainTrust

This technology should prove to be successful in giving consumers a higher level of comfort when buying food online. Fruits, vegetables and meat are often challenging to purchase even when picking them out yourself in the supermarket. But when purchasing online, you’re at the mercy of a stock person who is filling your order. My wife and I have had many bad experiences when the online ordered groceries arrived, and we found ourselves throwing out spoiled products. Seeing the items before purchase is a great start to prevent that from happening and I commend Walmart for their leg up with this technology.

Phil Chang
BrainTrust
Phil Chang
Retail Influencer, Speaker and Consultant
1 year 7 months ago

It’s certainly going change the experience. Without seeing the technology in action, I have more questions. How long does it take to transmit pictures to/from the shopper to the consumer and back again? And if I’m buying a lot of produce, is this going to be laborious? As a consumer, am I going to want all these messages on my phone? What happens when I don’t answer my phone? How long does a shopper wait?

Lots of questions on execution, I know. I don’t know if I want to look at all these pictures and answer messages for three or four apples. I think for all of that, I might just go to my local store and get produce.

Lee Kent
BrainTrust

I’m with Phil here. The concept sounds good but also rather laborious. I would have to understand better how it works. Do i indicate that I want to buy produce then wait for an employee to pick out the product and send me a picture? That does not sound like it will scale very well. I must be missing something. For my 2 cents.

Sterling Hawkins
BrainTrust

I’m with Phil as well in that it really depends on the implementation and how the consumer experience is packaged. If it’s not ultra-simple, it’s a lot of technology that won’t see a lot of use. Directionally, Walmart is still headed in the right direction and I give them credit for thinking out over the immediate horizon to imagine how technology might create new kinds of experiences for their customers.

Paula Rosenblum
BrainTrust

I have been using one of the delivery services for a while. The produce looks like I expected, it was just way smaller or larger than I’d hoped. So as long as the photos show scale, consumers might like it.

What spending the time to do this will do to grocers’ already thin margins is another story … I can’t really see it.

Charles Dimov
Guest

Interesting idea if it can be done in real-time or near real-time. This might swing new customers over who have been reluctant to try it. After trying the grocery service, they try it a few times, get used to it and come to realize the quality of the groceries from the store — then a new habit is formed. Great thinking in terms of overcoming the barrier to trying the new service on the consumer’s side. As to whether this will work … that will be an interesting one to watch.

Ken Lonyai
BrainTrust

I don’t see real foodies accepting something like this, but in time, common Walmart shoppers might. Foodies go beyond looks in choosing produce and consider aroma, firmness and density, but they probably will never shop Walmart.

Aside from being media candy — which this absolutely is — if it ever really comes to fruition, this is an effort-intensive process for both the consumer and store associates. Eventually, shoppers will either gain the trust to let Walmart pick their groceries without the system or not buy online produce. Upon reviewing the inefficiency and hit to net revenue, (if it was ever rolled out) I would not be surprised to hear that it was phased out once shoppers were comfortable buying produce online.

Dr. Stephen Needel
BrainTrust

You can’t feel or smell the produce — so this is not that useful. Anyone can deliver produce that is unblemished, what you can’t tell is how fresh/ripe something is just by looking at it (bananas excepted, of course).

Neil Saunders
BrainTrust

Interesting, but no thanks. I’ve got better things to do with my time than to sift through pictures of fruit and vegetables after placing an online order. And in any case, you still can’t feel or smell the item — which is an important part of assessing freshness.

This will also add complexity to a retailer’s operations. Having to scan things, replace rejected items, etc. just adds to the cost and time if takes to fulfill an order.

This seems like an over-engineered solution to a genuine problem.

Dave Bruno
BrainTrust

I am skeptical of the viability of this approach. It seems to add burdens to both shopper and retailer. Shoppers now need to take more time evaluating each piece of produce, and store associates have to take time taking the images and waiting for approval. If it were me, I would spend the time and money ensuring that high-quality produce is selected and delivered every time to build shopper confidence and eliminate their worries by effectively executing existing processes, rather than adding burdens and processes as a backstop to ineffective execution.

Jasmine Glasheen
BrainTrust

Genius. In discussions about buying produce online, customers repeatedly voice concerns over the quality of the produce they will be receiving. Walmart’s 3-D imaging technology closes the gap and will boost the purchasing confidence of online consumers.

Ian Percy
BrainTrust

But how do you feel the avocados?

This is a very interesting technology and, I suspect, may lead to as much rejection as to acceptance. What happens then when you still want bananas? I guess we make it interactive so we can direct the selector robot: “No, not that one, two over to the right. Yeah, that one.” Or maybe it could expand to fast food places so I could see what my burger really looks like compared to the stock photos.

Strangely and ironically, what we really see here is technology introducing more uncertainty, not less.

Cate Trotter
BrainTrust

This is interesting, but on the face of it I wonder if it’s one of those cases of technology for the sake of it, rather than technology that is really solving an issue. If you’re buying a lot of fruit and vegetables then that’s a lot of photos to look at — if you order five carrots do you inspect each one? What about if it’s a bag of carrots? Then an image doesn’t really tell you so much. It just seems like it might take a long time and I’m not sure who would want to go to that effort and not go to the effort to just pop into their local supermarket and check the produce out themselves. But the wider idea that the patent covers is an interesting one and I wonder if it could be applied in other instances of online shopping — e.g., luxury goods or expensive items like TVs etc. — where people want more reassurance over what they’re buying.

Camille P. Schuster, PhD.
BrainTrust

Viewing all the produce to find the selections that a customer wants could be time consuming, making the shopping process frustrating. How does the retailer keep the selected items from being chosen by someone else or picked up in the store or even the backroom by someone else? As with any other technology, the details have to be worked out to make the technology useful.

Peter Luff
BrainTrust

This is an interesting patent in isolation, but ultimately it does not complete the resistance as smell and touch are still missing. This will wait for other developments in those additional areas before it will be a fully baked solution.

Cynthia Holcomb
BrainTrust

Having to review each fruit or vegetable and say ok rather takes away from the convenience of ordering online. What happens if the shopper does not have time to review each piece of produce? By its nature, produce is perishable. 1-2 days from order to ship affects freshness from photo to delivery. How many hands will touch the tomato I ordered? How appealing and tasty is an edible watermark? In my view, driven by the Amazon factor, retailers are entering the age of “ridiculous tech.” For whatever reason, likely PR buzz, retailers should re-read “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”

Craig Sundstrom
Guest

It sounds remarkably labor intensive, and yet, while it’s clearly — no pun intended — better than a stock image, it’s still not the same as touching and holding … let alone smelling. So I give it an “A.” Well, maybe a “B+” for effort, but only a C- for results.

And at the risk of being a perpetual naysayer, it’s another example of why I’m doubtful online will ever be a significant share of grocery … at least in my lifetime.

Doug Garnett
BrainTrust
Doug Garnett
President, Protonik
1 year 7 months ago

Argh. The tech folks just don’t get it.

First, they should have looked at the 3D holographic system that Lego put in their stores about 6 or 7 years ago. There was virtually no advantage to seeing things with it and it was quite finicky. Overall, even with something as simple as a Lego, it just didn’t do anything for you.

Second, the issue with fruit isn’t how pretty or how big it is. The issue is firmness, feel, etc. So unless they’re envisioning haptic interfaces where the consumer wears a pressure glove, I just don’t see anything exciting here.

It’s concerning that Walmart might be following the “lets just announce some tech” approach to managing Wall Street.

Ricardo Belmar
BrainTrust
The exciting part of this development with Walmart is that they filed the patent for the technology. If they made a press release about this we would all be even more impressed as they take another page out of the Amazon playbook. The actual application of the technology is another issue completely. While it sounds interesting and on the surface seems to address at least one pain point of buying produce online, it’s only one aspect — the look, but not the feel. For most people, I expect the number one issue with buying online is not being able to feel the fruit, vegetable, or meat product. This solution doesn’t address that. Plus, I’m left wondering how this will be executed in a cost-effective way by Walmart — how labor intensive will it be for an associate to pick and scan a large grocery order with 15 different produce products? How long will it then take the customer to review 15 different 3D images on their device to validate the order? It just doesn’t seem… Read more »
Min-Jee Hwang
Guest

I think this is a step in the right direction. Giving shoppers a say over the products they’re buying is crucial in the grocery industry, but I agree with others that this process might be a bit too time consuming. Since this is just a patent, we will have to wait and see whether it reaches the beta stage. I’m not sure that this would be effective at scale in its current form, but with some tweaks and customer feedback, this could take away one of the major barriers to online grocery shopping.

wpDiscuz
Braintrust
"As long as the photos show scale, consumers might like it."
"...on the face of it I wonder if it’s one of those cases of technology for the sake of it, rather than technology that is really solving an issue."
"This is an interesting patent in isolation, but ultimately it does not complete the resistance as smell and touch are still missing."

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