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.

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