"And when she got there, the cupboard was bare..."
I didn’t grow up with Walmart. As I wrote six years ago (to the day!), Meijer was more than enough Big Box for us. In fact, the full Walmart still isn’t allowed in Chicago, though there is an urban “Walmart Express” a few blocks from my house. But everyone knows that Walmart has been the nation’s (and world’s) largest retailer for years. Its annual U.S. revenues ($334B in 2014) are over three times as large as second-place Kroger. Stories about Walmart’s efficiency are legendary, and fill volumes of business school case study texts.
Ironically, Walmart’s operations have been viewed as actually being too lean. In-store merchandise hasn’t been getting replenished because, even though Walmart is the world's largest private employer, it “doesn’t have enough bodies to restock the shelves.” As a result, customers have been leaving.
Looking at today's patent issuance, perhaps Walmart is considering a new approach to address this problem: crowdsourcing.
U.S. Patent No. 8,9996,413
Techniques for detecting depleted stock
Assignee: Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
Filed: December 28, 2012
1. A computer-implemented method comprising:
receiving, by a processing device of a commerce server, a video signal from a head mountable unit worn by a human customer shopping in a retail store;
Commentary: So Walmart wants its customers (a/k/a, the People of Walmart) to wear special glasses while they shop. When the customer looks at an empty shelf, the glasses see a bar code or QR code (that’s the exposed “geometric figure”), and send a “restock signal” for the item.
The patent doesn’t say anything about incentives for customers to participate, though. Maybe it’s a discount at the register? Loyalty points? Or some other promotion that costs it less than its famed non-union wages? (On a related note, maybe Walmart should consider paying customers to return shopping carts from the parking lots, to save labor costs and avoid potentially dangerous situations.)
As for the validity of the claims, I’ll avoid commenting on possible obviousness regarding things like hand scanners and barcodes for inventory control. It’s the Alice question that is of interest here. After an initial rejection, the examiner added a 101 rejection in July 2014 citing Alice, finding the claims:
a) were directed to an abstract idea; and
b) included “no meaningful limitations…that transform the abstract idea into a patent eligible application such that the claims amount to significantly more than the abstract idea itself.”
In response, Walmart amended the claim element as shown above, from:
- “Identifying…an area of depleted stock in the retail store”
- “identifying…a geometric figure positioned so that the geometric figure is exposed to view as a stock of a particular product sold within the retail store is depleted.”
Walmart argued this single change to the claim “highlight[s] features that render the recited invention significantly more than an abstract idea.” The Examiner then agreed without additional comment, and allowed the claim.
It’s not entirely clear if the allowance was under the first or second prong of Alice. Did Walmart’s response give up that the invention was actually directed to an abstract idea? Regardless, it was apparently clear to this Examiner that the use of a “head mountable unit” that sends a video signal wasn’t enough to get past Alice here, yet adding a simple barcode sticker on a shelf did the trick.
Old Mother Hubbard may have pre-dated Lewis Carroll by a few decades, but she seems to be at home in the Wonderland of 101 now.