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'Paper or plastic' is now 'computer or cashier'

By Marie EwaldStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 19, 2004

Morena Michelangelo shops for food in reverse. When she enters her local Stop & Shop supermarket in Quincy, Mass., she meticulously unfolds and lines up six brown bags along the bottom of her shopping cart. And even though she has plenty more groceries to buy, she rings up and bags her chips and soda.

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Rather than a backward shopper, Ms. Michelangelo considers herself a progressive one. She uses new technology - a mobile computer and bar-code scanner - that she plucks from a rack and attaches to her shopping cart. It allows her to find, ring up, and bag her groceries as she navigates the aisles. For Michelangelo, the lines, clerks, and "Have a nice day," once intrinsic to grocery shopping, have gone the way of the family tab at the five-and-dime.

"We come here just for the Shopping Buddy," her teenage daughter Melanie says, referring to the portable computer, which greets the Michelangelos by name after it reads their loyalty card. "We've kind of personified him. We call him Buddy."

To remain competitive, supermarkets are revving their technological engines. Eventually, say industry experts, shoppers won't need wallets or scanners.

With Pay by Touch systems and microchips embedded in each product, shopping will be as simple as grab, bag, and get out. Sensors will ring up goods within seconds, and a fingerprint-reading device will enable shoppers to access their accounts without using plastic.

Within a decade, grocery analysts say, the industry will be completely transformed.

"It's really quite fascinating," says Todd Hultquist of the Food Marketing Institute, a trade association. "It's not that far off, actually."

The latest innovation is the hand-held scanner, which stores say makes shopping less time-consuming. After an encouraging pilot program at three Massachusetts Stop & Shop stores, the Shopping Buddies will be installed in 20 others. And a successful run of a similar Shop 'n Scan system at Albertsons stores in Illinois convinced the US grocer to expand the technology to its entire Dallas/Fort Worth market (104 stores) this month.

The gadgets are simple to use: Shoppers select a bag of tortilla chips from the shelf and pass the scanner over the UPC symbol. Immediately, the item and its price appear on a touchscreen at the bottom of a list of other scanned goods.

Michelangelo, who calls herself a "computer dummy," says the system is easy to learn. The other day, she weighed and scanned a bag of red peppers, decided they were too expensive, and took one out. With a touch of a button, she deleted the item, and rescanned the bag. As she adds items to her cart, she can keep track of how much she's spending.

The new contraptions can also order deli items from anywhere in the store, indicate if pharmacy prescriptions or photos are ready for pick up, and help new customers navigate a store. Also, by reading sensors along the ceiling, the devices can display custom-generated discounts in the aisle the shopper is browsing. By tracking consumers' shopping habits, they can remind shoppers about a nearby product they have regularly bought in the past. To safeguard against customers who might "forget" to scan that megapack of toilet paper, stores use surveillance and conduct random checks.