It’s going to be pretty tough for smaller retailers to compete with capabilities like this:

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has opened a new front in its battle with Amazon.com Inc.

The world’s largest retailer has applied for a U.S. patent for a floating warehouse that could make deliveries via drones, which would bring products from the aircraft down to shoppers’ homes.

The blimp-style machine would fly at heights between 500 feet and 1,000 feet (as much as 305 meters), contain multiple launching bays, and be operated autonomously or by a remote human pilot. Amazon was granted a patent for a similar vessel in April 2016.

The migration to the skies represents the latest volley in a clash between Wal-Mart and Amazon to grab shoppers’ attention, loyalty and dollars. In the process, the companies are increasingly treading on the other’s turf: Amazon is opening physical stores and agreed to pay $13.7 billion for upscale grocer Whole Foods Market Inc. Wal-Mart, meanwhile, has beefed up its e-commerce business through acquisitions and offers like free two-day shipping.

An unmanned airborne warehouse — laden with drones — could help retailers lower the costs of fulfilling online orders, particularly the so-called “last mile” to a customer’s house, which is usually handled by a local or national logistics company. To avoid that expense, Wal-Mart and other retailers often encourage shoppers to pick up those orders at the store, where they might grab a few additional items. Earlier this week, Target Corp. agreed to acquire a software company that coordinates local deliveries.

“The core challenge of traffic and driving distance in any major city or in a very rural location can be helped by a floating warehouse,” said Brandon Fletcher, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein. “Movable warehouses are a really nice idea because any flexible part of a logistics system allows it to be more efficient when demand varies wildly. The e-commerce world suffers from highly variable demand and more creative solutions are needed.”

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