Five Ways to See the Supermarket of the Future Today

Store-provided personal barcode scanners
Store-provided personal barcode scanners are becoming more commonplace, but the technology is being adapted for smart phones to make for an easier shopping experience. Image courtesy of Flickr user Kerri9494

Imagine if you will: Agropolis, a supermarket where all your produce is hydroponically grown right there in the store. Even living in dense, urban areas you’d have access to fresh fruits and vegetables. It eliminates the issue of transportation, further driving down costs, and because you’d pluck what you wanted straight from the farm/store display, there’d be less waste in the form of plastic bags and cartons. Unfortunately, Agropolis is purely conceptual, the idea of a team of Danish designers who wanted to take the farm-to-table concept to a new level. Their grown-in-store model, while fun, has its drawbacks, namely that the technology required to make an Agropolis-like market a reality is prohibitively expensive. So while these idyllic urban markets remain a figment of the human imagination, grocery stores are finding ways to innovate and make use of technology to create better shopping experiences. Here are five ways in which you may presently see the supermarket of the future:

Same-Day Delivery: Many food retailers now allow customers to fill a virtual cart online and have their order of goods delivered directly to their doorstep; however, there is a delay between the time you place your order and the time you receive your goods—as much as a few days depending on the delivery time slots available. If you’re ace at planning ahead, this works great. Google is looking to change that. In April, they began testing a new service dubbed Shopping Express in the San Francisco Bay area. Customers can order from big box stores—like Target and Walgreens—as well as from participating local stores, which means a person doesn’t have to build their pantry up through a series of trips to different stores. At Slate, Reid Mitenbuler notes that this service could be revolutionary in how it allows a person access to better food, “A lot of times I’m looking for specialty goods—higher quality seafood, some specific ethnic spice, fresh roasted coffee beans, high-end local bread, a snooty variety of coconut water—that requires a trip to Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, the Chinese or Indian market, or some other out-of-the-way place.” Not to be outdone, both Amazon and WalMart are each testing same-day and next day delivery services.

Receipts in the Cloud: Cloud computing has been promoted as a means to break the bonds of your hard drive and to access your data—music, movies, documents—from anywhere as long as you have access to a data connection. Grocery stores are starting to jump on the bandwagon. This June, Booths supermarket in the UK started phasing out paper receipts, instead sending them to a customer’s cloud-based account. The idea of e-receipts, where a retailer will email you a receipt in lieu of handing you a paper one, isn’t new; however, Booths cloud refines the idea in such a way that digital-only receipts has advantages for the consumer. Shoppers have an account so they can track not just how much they spend on each shopping visit, but also their expenditures by category, allowing them to make budgetary—and dietary—adjustments as needed. There’s also the ecological bonus of eliminating an estimated 100,000 rolls of receipt paper per year.

Scanning With Your Smartphone: Scan It devices have been around for a few years already. On entering the store, shoppers pick up a device that looks like a remote control with a monitor built in and can scan items as they shop, keeping a running total of their purchases that is designed to make the checkout process faster. Some chains, like Giant and Stop and Shop, are taking that concept a step further by publishing apps that turn your smart phone into a barcode scanner. Though these apps are usually free to download, you may get hit in the wallet elsewhere: stores are also using mobile technology to get shoppers to spend more money by offering app-exclusive coupons to spur impulse buys. A supermarket in Paris, however, is taking this a step further. Customers use their phones to scan the item and, in addition to maintaining a running tally of the grocery order, but they will be provided with nutritional information and other data about the item before they decide to place it in their cart.

No More Typing in Produce Codes: While smart phones may be the new barcode readers, Toshiba is figuring out how to do away with barcodes altogether by developing a scanner savvy enough to tell the difference between your Fuji and Granny Smith apples. Unveiled in spring 2012, the Object Recognition Scanner hones in on patterns and colors in food much in the same way that facial recognition scanners use certain criteria—like the distance between a person’s eyes and nose width—to identify people. But here, the scanner can discern between fresh produced and prepackaged goods. While this technology could one day spell the end for barcodes, as of this writing, the scanners have not yet been tested outside of a demo environment.

Shorter Waits in Line: Infrared cameras used to detect body heat are a tool traditionally used by police and the military. But food retailer Kroger sees a use for them in the grocery store. By mounting the cameras at the entrance to the store and at the cash registers, the cameras work with in-house-developed software that records supermarket traffic at different times of day, allowing managers to know how many lanes need to be open and when to open them. Currently in use at some 2,400 stores, the average customer wait time has been reduced from 4 minutes to 26 seconds.

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