Walmart’s InHome Delivery sets stage for swath of smart home services

Retail giant Walmart has announced that it is launching its InHome Delivery service in the US in Q3, starting in Kansas City, Pittsburgh, and Vero Beach. The service will be available to over a million customers, and will allow Walmart employees to make deliveries inside the customers home – with the initial plan being to put food away inside the refrigerators and freezers.

This service, if it takes hold, opens the door for all manner of other services, as it should get customers familiar with the concept and mechanics of using technology to let someone into their home if they are not present. There are other delivery trials involving cars, where the automaker has a relationship with the courier to let them drop something off inside the trunk while the car’s owner is not around, but the home might be the faster way to reach mass-market adoption, as the barrier to entry is lower than a brand new car.

Until now, the biggest barrier to services like InHome Delivery was trust – that you didn’t know if you were going to be robbed blind, or if sub-standard work was going to be done because no one was watching to prevent corners being cut. The other main barrier was being available to let a tradesperson into your home, as even if you trusted them, you might not necessarily want to leave a key under the doormat for them.

But smart home technologies are opening the door here. Affordable cameras mean that you could always drop in and monitor a visit, and their presence should be a visible reminder to keep the person honest, although you would hope that their own morals and training would do that regardless.

Two-way audio would give you a way to check-in, or ask questions, without needing to go via the service provider, and similarly, if the service provider is using a smartphone application as a go-between, that same app should provide a way to get status updates or even view the video feed from the staffer’s camera – for homes that don’t have in-house CCTV. Longer term, it might be AR headsets or glasses that provide this feed, rather than a camera, but the dynamic is the same.

Amazon has been very public about its ambition to use Ring doorbells and Blink cameras, brands it now owns, as the technology to let it make deliveries inside the home. Given that some of the most viral coverage of its Ring cameras consists of recordings of ‘porch pirates’ running off with the packages left at the home’s door, being able to open the front door and make a more secure delivery could be a pretty valuable return on this investment for Amazon – as it won’t have to eat the cost of these missed deliveries and stolen merchandise.

But it is telling that the two biggest retailers in the US are the ones leading the charge for these services – that advances in smart home technology are simply a means to an end, to be able to sell more goods to consumers. Sure, they could pave the way for local plumbers to be able to make use of the same system, or for first-responders to be able to get into the home of a relative that a family member is concerned about, but let us not forget that this isn’t an altruistic endeavor from Amazon and Walmart – this is consumerism.

So then, for this to scale, is Walmart relying on most of its customers having connected door locks and smartphones? As a massive retailer, it does have the scale to push such locks as part of its usual channels, but it could also bundle a lock in with the service if it is subscription-based. Walmart will have to do the sums and work out how many trips it needs to secure before such a bundle would pay off, particularly with customer retention in mind, but the prices of these devices are coming down by the month, and given that groceries and associated spending are one of the largest spending categories for consumers, it does seem like a fairly safe bet to make.

However, as with all new services, it only takes one bad accident to scupper consumer confidence. The extensive training program that Walmart is planning on implementing is all for naught if the smart lock fails to shut behind the staffer on the way out, or if the lock pops open in the middle of the night.

Accusations of the latest metastasis of surveillance capitalism will be thrown at the service, but if customers are happy to trust the business, then it’s hard to fault the service provider really. Convenience is a huge purchase driver, and both Walmart and Amazon are banking on their customers spending more through this channel than they would via a visit to the store.

The customer gets to skip the potentially stressful and time-consuming visit, freeing up their own time to do something more enjoyable. The retailer gets to leverage this ‘value’ by promoting better margin goods or upselling, hoping that the luxury of having a personal-shopper leads to more profit. Of course, that’s a fine line to walk, and it is going to be a long time before Walmart starts talking about those details in its reports, but services like this are poised to be strong drivers of smart home device sales.

“Customers can then go about their days while a Walmart associate takes care of their grocery shopping for them, from food aisle to fridge. At the time of delivery, associates will use smart entry technology and a proprietary, wearable camera to access the customer’s home, allowing customers to control access into their homes and giving them the ability to watch the deliveries remotely.”