High-tech grocery carts can help, but raise concerns
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press
Published Wednesday, August 13, 2008 3:24PM EDT
EDMONTON - Canadian consumers eagerly use digital technology to bank, buy tickets and plan trips. But when it comes to groceries, they wander the aisles hunting and gathering the same way they've done it for decades.
Smart-cart technology -- shopping carts with attached interactive video consoles -- is gaining momentum in the United States and Europe, but not in Canada.
Sylvain Perrier of Toronto-based Springboard Retail Networks, which markets the Concierge smart cart, said he doesn't know of any Canadian store using or even test-marketing the innovation.
The reasons, he said, are thin profit margins and competition with big-box megastores like Wal-Mart.
In the U.S., he said, uber-chains like Safeway are focusing on service to improve the shopping experience as a way to set themselves apart.
"They have shifted in the sense their offerings are best in quality and service and not necessarily the lowest price," said Perrier, Springboard's vice-president of technology.
"In our retail industry we're still learning to adapt to having Wal-Mart. We're still trying to compete on price."
Concierge, now being test-marketed by Springboard in the eastern U.S., is a digital screen that uses in-store wireless technology to update shoppers on inventory levels, price specials and product launches. The device can scan item, update cost totals and allow the customer to pay without having to stand in a check-out line.
The technology is similar to what's being piloted in the U.S. by companies like Texas-based MediaCart and Cabco Group Ltd. of New Zealand.
Cabco is pursuing its own smart cart -- the Mi-Kart -- and has already spearheaded the TV Kart, which has the basket on top with room underneath for two kids to sit and watch an hour of shows like "Barney."
MediaCart, in a joint venture with Microsoft, announced this year it will test market its cart at ShopRite stores on the U.S. East Coast. MediaCart features a strong advertising component. As a shopper turns into the cereal aisle, for example, the device will trip a sensor that will flash an on-screen ad for, say, Chocolate-Frosted Cinnamon Sugar Crunch.
The entire smart cart concept has provoked the ire of watchdog groups like U.S.-based CASPIAN (Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering), who warn customers that when it comes to in-store innovation, be careful what you wish for.
Smart carts and radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology would allow stores to monitor shopping patterns -- what's bought, when it's bought, when it's held and put back, how long it was held for and so on, said CASPIAN founder Katherine Albrecht.
She labelled it the vanguard of an invasive marketing surveillance revolution that could eventually allow marketers to tailor prices, items and promotions to weed out shallow-pocketed "bottom feeders" and cater to desirable, fat-walleted shoppers.
"I call it the retail zoo, where the customer is the exhibit," Albrecht -- a consumer privacy expert and author of the book "Spy Chips" -- said in an interview from Nashua, N.H.
"Because the store owner is in a position to install all sorts of surveillance equipment, they really believe themselves entitled to use it and treat people as lab rats in a maze or experimental subjects to be watched. I find that extremely disturbing."
Smart carting would be the most sweeping innovation in years for an invention that has become a symbol of modern consumerism and, when upended in an alley, a cliche of urban decay.
Oklahoma supermarket owner Sylvan Goldman is credited with inventing the shopping cart in 1937, when he pondered ways to hike sales and help those customers lugging baskets up and down the aisles. He attached two baskets, one above the other, to a folding chair and added wheels, and voila.
It was a dud.
Manly men refused to be seen piloting a dainty cart, and young mothers said they'd had enough pram-pushing to last a lifetime. So Goldman hired actors to push the innovation around and, before you knew it, the cart took off.
A report this May by the global research firm TNS suggested many Canadian consumers are ready for the tech step. TNS surveyed 600 primary household shoppers in Canada and reported that about one in three found the carts "very appealing."
"From the technology standpoint (with consumers) there's definitely a comfort level," Kerry Gilfillan, TNS vice-president of shopping and retail insight, said from Toronto.
He agreed retailers are being cautious in a field where an ordinary cart may cost $200 but the smart-screen technology upwards of $2,000 per unit.
"I think (Canadian firms) will look at the U.S. experience first before they think about investing."