Columbia, Md. — If you think a scanner checkout at the supermarket is high-tech, be prepared. We're on the cutting edge of a new era in electronic shopping.
State-of-the-art machines now perform all kinds of activities, from showing a recipe on a video screen, with pictures of how the dish looks when it's cooked and served, to a computer with visual and audible directions for locating different products -- like spaghetti sauce or Chinese noodles.
There are also machines that dispense coupons; take empty bottles and cans, trash them, and spit out your cash refund; and play video tapes that demonstrate fresh ideas for using produce. There's even a new sitdown shopping chair with attached shopping cart available -- it's an expensive service for supermarkets to offer, but it's ideal for the physically impaired and for those mile-long aisles in what are known as the giant ``Gucci'' supermarkets.
In the fish department at Valu-Food, a supermarket in Columbia, Md., the Cuisine Machine recently appeared.
A computerized information vendor with a video display screen, Cuisine Machine supplies customers with details about available fresh fish and suggests ways to prepare it.
Stu Denrich, owner of the store, says shoppers took over 1,200 recipes from the Cuisine Machine during its first week.
``Lobster is the favorite subject so far,'' says manager Ken Bowen. ``People like to watch the close-up directions that show how to take a cooked lobster apart and prepare the meat for a salad or other dish.''
Cuisine Machine has a touch video screen, and from a list that appears on the screen, customers are able to select information about the fish of their choice at the touch of a finger.
If the customer presses ``lobster,'' a photograph of an attractive plate of lobster will appear, with a list of touch words below: recipes, general, preparation, cooking, and storage. Touching the word ``recipes'' will bring to the screen a list of recipe titles, such as Boiled Lobster, Baked Stuffed Lobster, Lobster Bordelaise, and Lobster Rissoles. Touching the recipe title calls up the actual recipe, and what's more, if the recipe serves four and you have six people coming to dinner, at the touch of another button the recipe measures are changed instantly to the correct proportions.
Finally, you can request a printed copy of the recipe to take with you while you shop for all the ingredients needed.
There's no question that this new technology will aid you in your purchasing decisions. But will it also influence and control what you buy? Will there be out and out advertising on the screens? Will the recipes give brand names for basic products like cheese, tuna fish, or salad dressing?
Advertising on television screens is nothing new to American consumers, it's true. And in the supermarket, there could be a fine line between advertising and helpful information. Some people ask if there may not be ulterior ``motivation behind the microchips.'' The answer to this depends on the supermarket, of course, and on the credibility and reputation of the store owner.
Bowen explains that currently, there are no brand names and no ads being used in the Cuisine Machine.
But while the Cuisine Machine is not programmed to do so, it could feature specific brand names in a recipe. A recipe for Chicken Tetrazzini could specify Prince spaghetti, for example.
``Although any brand would be satisfactory, the customer would need to use common sense,'' says Jeff Dowell, sales manager for Valu-Food. ``But people today are aware of advertising from several sources and can use their own judgment.''
Will these services eliminate the shopping list?
When you realize how busy people are today and how often they shop on impulse, as opposed to bringing along a well thought out list from home, the impetus behind electronic shopping becomes clear: It will make impulse buying even more attractive.
``But there are still those people who come with their shopping list and their box of coupons,'' says Bowen.