The Shopping Cart, Version 2.0: Harnessing the power of USB keys and wi-fi, the buggy wheels into the 21st Century
by Graham Duncan, The Globe and Mail, Toronto, ON
Toronto - It sounds like bad 1950s science fiction, but the following conversation may soon be coming to a grocery store near you.
"Honey, did you download the shopping list?"
"Just before we left. Wait a minute. Yes, the shopping cart recognizes me and it's on the screen. Eggs -- aisle seven."
In 1947, Orla E. Watson of Kansas City, Mo., filed a patent for the wire and tubular steel shopping?cart. Since then, the indestructible rattling buggy has done little climbing on the evolutionary ladder. But if Springboard Retail Networks, based in King City, Ont., has its way, the shopping cart is about to take a quantum leap forward.
Springboard's Concierge is one of the latest attempts at a computerized shopping cart. As modelled at last month's Grocery Innovations Canada trade show in Toronto, its Canadian debut, it features a compact touch-sensitive screen integrated into the handlebar of a traditional buggy. (The pink and white colour scheme, it must be noted, makes it look like giant Barbie accessory.)
Techno-shopping enthusiasts, so the plan goes, will create shopping lists at home using the supermarket's website.
Upon arriving at the store, the consumer plugs a USB key into the Concierge unit. Using a storewide wi-fi system, the computer recognizes the user and recalls the shopping list, which then scrolls across the screen as the Concierge navigates the shopper efficiently through the aisles. Regular customers may see special offers pop up for their favourite products.
Less geeky folk can use it in a more casual manner. If you're walking through the megamart unable to find the briquettes or the anchovy paste, just type in what you need and Concierge will tell you what aisle it's in. Don't know what to make for dinner? Consult Concierge's recipe file.
Those suspicious of such Big Brother tactics will no doubt abhor the built-in advertising, triggered by proximity to a product. Walk past the potato chips and the Concierge screen might light up, telling you they're now available in sausage flavour, or that they're on sale.
Since the Concierge system is a pricey upgrade for a supermarket, it's not surprising that the carts transmit a signal when removed from store property. A Concierge cart can be tracked for more than one kilometre from its home base. (So much for trying to save the cab fare.)
Springboard has been displaying the unit, developed just seven months ago, to supermarket chains in both the United States and Canada. It follows on the wheels of other high-tech models, such as the "shopping buddy" from IBM, introduced in the summer, and the Magellan, which had a test run at U.S. Safeway stores in 2002. The Concierge may start appearing in stores as soon as 2006, says Sylvain Perrier , Springboard vice-president.
Now if they could only rig up some robot arms to grab stuff off the shelves while you have a latte -- that would truly be the shopping cart of tomorrow.