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

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Soon, the wireless computers will provide recipes and be able to electronically retrieve shopping lists created at home, says Mike Grimes, vice president of sales and marketing at Cuesol, a Quincy-based shopping technology company that helped design the Shopping Buddies.

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Historically, retailers have always been a bit resistant to new methods, but it's only a matter of time before this new breed of technology becomes a nationwide staple, says Mr. Hultquist.

"Right now, with the recent interest we've seen all over this country, I really think it's going to catch on," says Frank Riso, director of vertical retail marketing at Symbol Technologies, which made the hand-held scanners. A second chain of grocery stores will offer the scanners next month, with another venturing into the futuristic frontier by the end of the year. Already, more than 500 supermarkets across Europe have successfully implemented them.

But the system has a long way to go to attract a shopping majority. Not everyone thinks these new doodads are the best thing since sliced bread. Plowing through Stop & Shop's International Foods section, a Quincy couple say they've already transformed the shopping experience into a science; Joe Sheffer claims that his wife, Jean, can estimate the cost of their weekly trip to within $5. Why use a computer? It would just take more time, they say.

Helen Stevens, rounding a corner with staples in her basket - orange juice, milk, bread, eggs - says she's overwhelmed even by the self-checkout aisle. "I don't know how to do it. It makes me nervous," she says with an exaggerated pout. "I'll be 84 in June. My brain is too full now."

George Whalin, president and CEO of Retail Management Consultants, is also skeptical about the new system. Self checkout is, fundamentally, a tool for reducing labor costs, he says, and the hand-held scanner is another step in that direction.

"There's some real question about pushing technologies on the consumer that the consumer isn't demanding," he says. "Has the customer asked for more control? I don't think so. They're selling the concept the wrong way." Supermarkets should instead create a more pleasant atmosphere, he says, so that shoppers would be encouraged to browse longer. Forget interactive gadgets. Put in better lighting, wider aisles, clearer signage.

Other concerns come from consumers who find it disconcerting to see their shopping history scrolled out on a screen in front of them. The Shopping Buddy will remember if the Michelangelos bought sour cream two weeks ago, and ask if they want more.

"It's a little unnerving, it's like Big Brother," Melanie says. "But you don't have to pay attention to it."

In fact, most retailers allow shoppers to "opt out" of the system and remain relatively anonymous.

In the end, the Michelangelos say they don't mind if Buddy reminds them to buy cereal. "I'm just waiting for him to talk back," Morena Michelangelo says.

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