WALMART PATENTS TECH TO SURVEIL EMPLOYEES: Walmart recently obtained a patent for a surveillance system that would use a series of sensors placed around the checkout area to monitor audio data, BuzzFeed reports. This data includes beeps, the sound of bags rustling, and conversations between shoppers and associates. It’s unclear whether the retailer will actually build and employ this technology in stores, but the patent’s text suggests that the intended use would be “tracking performance metrics for employees to ensure that the employees are performing their jobs efficiently.”
The technology could benefit Walmart by giving it a clearer view of how to streamline the customer experience. If Walmart decides to implement the new surveillance system, it will be able to closely monitor several metrics that could help it boost performance. For example, the distance of customer voices from the register would allow it to determine how long the line at a register is, how quickly shoppers are being checked out, and whether more registers need to be opened to decrease congestion. Perhaps more importantly, Walmart could also review guest-employee interactions to make sure that associates are satisfying customer needs. If the company can turn this data into actionable insights, the result may be a boost in efficiency and customer satisfaction.
The retailer will have to weigh the potential benefits against possible drawbacks, such as a drop in employee morale. While having access to advanced employee performance metrics may help Walmart boost efficiency, surveilling workers has the potential to backfire. If employees feel like they’re being spied on, they may begin to lose focus, slow down, or develop negative views of the company. Walmart employees have cited several concerns in the past, including low pay, unfair sick day policies, and gender discrimination. Adding pervasive surveillance might further degrade morale and discourage Walmart’s huge and essential workforce.
It’s also important for Walmart to consider how the use of this technology would impact its public image. The biggest drawback to surveilling workers is the potential for public backlash. As Walmart expands by adding new services and acquiring third parties such as Bonobos, it needs to be able to acquire new customers while not alienating its established customers or loyalists of the brands it acquires. As such, the retailer should pay close attention to the public response to these patents to decide if the probable backlash outweighs the benefits of closely monitoring employees.