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'Paper or plastic' is now 'computer or cashier'

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Morena Michelangelo shops for food in reverse. When she enters her local Stop & Shop supermarket in Quincy, Mass., she meticulously unfolds and lines up six brown bags along the bottom of her shopping cart. And even though she has plenty more groceries to buy, she rings up and bags her chips and soda.

Rather than a backward shopper, Ms. Michelangelo considers herself a progressive one. She uses new technology - a mobile computer and bar-code scanner - that she plucks from a rack and attaches to her shopping cart. It allows her to find, ring up, and bag her groceries as she navigates the aisles. For Michelangelo, the lines, clerks, and "Have a nice day," once intrinsic to grocery shopping, have gone the way of the family tab at the five-and-dime.

"We come here just for the Shopping Buddy," her teenage daughter Melanie says, referring to the portable computer, which greets the Michelangelos by name after it reads their loyalty card. "We've kind of personified him. We call him Buddy."

To remain competitive, supermarkets are revving their technological engines. Eventually, say industry experts, shoppers won't need wallets or scanners.

With Pay by Touch systems and microchips embedded in each product, shopping will be as simple as grab, bag, and get out. Sensors will ring up goods within seconds, and a fingerprint-reading device will enable shoppers to access their accounts without using plastic.

Within a decade, grocery analysts say, the industry will be completely transformed.

"It's really quite fascinating," says Todd Hultquist of the Food Marketing Institute, a trade association. "It's not that far off, actually."

The latest innovation is the hand-held scanner, which stores say makes shopping less time-consuming. After an encouraging pilot program at three Massachusetts Stop & Shop stores, the Shopping Buddies will be installed in 20 others. And a successful run of a similar Shop 'n Scan system at Albertsons stores in Illinois convinced the US grocer to expand the technology to its entire Dallas/Fort Worth market (104 stores) this month.

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