Walmart workers: The boss is listening
Patent would allow sound sensors to monitor employee activities
Customer service phone lines routinely tell consumers their “call is being recorded for quality assurance purposes.” But a new Walmart patent shows the retailer might someday collect checkout line sounds and capture conversations between customers and the cashier ringing up their milk and diapers.
The patent, which was reported by BuzzFeed Wednesday, would use a system of sound sensors to listen in on workers’ activities and interactions, gathering audio data such as the beeps and rustling of bags to determine the number of items in a transaction, the patent says, or conversations between cashiers and customers to hear whether, say, workers were greeting customers.
“A need exists for ways to capture the sounds resulting from people in the shopping facility and determine performance of employees based on those sounds,” the retail behemoth wrote in its patent application, called “Listening to the Frontend.”
The technology may never be built or implemented — it is only a patent — but it provides yet another example of the ways employers are using technology to more closely monitor employee behavior and collect vast amounts of data to manage them.
Walmart did not immediately respond to emails with a comment or more information about the patent, but said in a statement that “we’re always thinking about new concepts and ways that will help us further enhance how we serve customers, but we don’t have any further details to share on these patents at this time.”
Earlier this year, Amazon won patents for a wristband that would verify whether warehouse workers are correctly processing items, setting off vibrations to guide workers’ hands to the right bin, reported GeekWire. UPS uses sensors to track things like whether seat belts are being worn and the opening and closing of doors on its delivery trucks.
Technology even exists that allows companies to track workplace keyboards to see how fast employees are typing, said Brian Kropp, group vice president of Gartner’s human resources practice, as well as place sensors in workers’ chairs to track how much they’re not sitting at their desks.
“But is that because they’re going and talking and collaborating with their colleagues or because they’re going out to take a smoke break?” Kropp said. While the tools for collecting more and more data are increasingly available, he said, for the most part, “the models to turn that data into knowledge are not there.”
In its patent, Walmart indicated the concept was designed as a possible efficiency hack that could help decrease store costs and boost customer satisfaction.