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Waiting for the future

© June 2006 Anthony Lawrence

I had to run out for milk this morning. We usually shop at Hannaford's, because it's close to the highway exit and therefore on the way home from just about anywhere we go. This morning I was in a hurry mostly because I was hungry but also because I have Things To Do As Usual. Stop and Shop is closer than Hannaford's, so of course I headed there.

It's always more than milk, isn't it? The milk might be the critical item needed for breakfast, but there's always half a dozen other things that you might as well pick up since you are at the supermarket anyway..

But where the heck is everything? I'm not familiar with this store and the brands they carry. Some things, like milk and bananas, are easy. But others.. they are probably here, but I can't find them. Worse, store employees send me scurrying from place to place, because apparently they are guessing too. Frustrated and feeling hunger pains and time pressure, I checked out with less than half of what I wanted.

Someday, they say, this will all be the kind of thing Grampa tells to wide eyed innocents who can't imagine life without a kitchen that keeps track of what you need and notifies the supermarket of what you'll be shopping for. The grocery cart of the future will have your list and will lead you to what you need or make suggestions for substitutes when they are out of stock. How wonderful.

I don't think it's going to happen all that soon.

Several years ago I shopped at a supermarket that had a couple of information kiosks in the store. You could look up items by brand name or broad category and the kiosk would tell you where to find them. I thought it was great, because I sure didn't know where anything was, so it helped me.

The kiosks are gone, and I haven't seen another store adopt them.

Why? My guess would be that hardly anyone needs them. Most of the shoppers in the store are regulars, like me at Hannaford's. They know where everything is because they shop there regularly. Regular shoppers don't need kiosks or smart shopping carts.

I bet the supermarkets know this even better than I do. They want your business, but they also know that you'll usually shop where it's most convenient for you.. location, desired brands and price all come into play, but most of us end up doing most of our shopping in familiar aisles. If a competitor down the street with the wrong brands or the wrong prices tried to entice us with location assistance, few of us would be interested. Since it costs money to do kiosks (and a lot more to do smart shopping carts), and the probable gain in sales is small, I don't see much incentive.

Of course technology is getting cheaper, so the day may come faster than I think. And there are other reasons to have "smart carts", reasons that do have strong economic incentives behind them (elimination of checkout clerks, for example). Once you put in the technology, window dressing like location assistance is almost no cost, so I assume we will get it eventually.

In the mean time, where's that MinuteMaid frozen lemon juice again? The guy in produce says it should be down here but I sure don't see it..

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