by Ben Miller
Big brother in the grocery store or a helpful tool for gauging what you spend? Either way, I’m intrigued by the handheld scanners pictured above that are now starting to appear at certain grocery stores. (I first saw them last night in the Giant by my parents house in suburban Baltimore.)
According to both my dad, who has tried them out, and this post here, you simply grab a scanner when you enter the store, plug in some personal information (similar to what Giant already has on file for their bonus cards), and then scan each item as you put it into your cart. The machine then keeps a running total so you know exactly how much you are spending. When you are done shopping, you take the scanner and your cart to a cashier, who downloads the information. This supposedly speeds up the checkout process because each individual item doesn’t have to be rung up.
So far so good. As someone who has been burned before by unexpectedly high grocery bills, it would be useful to know how much you are spending, especially so you can put back that bigger ticket item you might not need.
But that’s not all it does. The scanner also will randomly pop up with special coupons and offers that are targeted toward you based upon what you are currently buying and have bought in the past. Again, this probably isn’t so different from the current system of getting the coupons when you checkout using your bonus card.
What I’d be curious to know, however, is do the scanners contain any sort of GPS or position-tracking software in them. In other words, is the machine smart enough to give you an offer for that thing of chocolate ice cream because it knows you are mere feet away from it? Even if it doesn’t use GPS, I could envision a system that eventually could combine radio frequency tags to locate nearby items with available coupons.
Second, do the stores use the scanner to plot how customers move throughout the store. It’s well known that a lot of thought goes into product placement and store layout (see this Economist article for more on this). But all this planning is ultimately limited because store owners don’t know the exact path that individual patrons tend to take when shopping. Overlaying user scans on top of a store map could help plot the way patrons shop at the store. It could also build more complete shopper profiles for each patron. This would allow the scanner to offer deals on items that are in aisles a customer usually doesn’t go down, or rearrange items so that the customer explores more of the store.
My guess is the scanners will ultimately have little effect on the actual dollar value of goods purchased. Some people may shop less as they see the bill adding up, others might buy more, as they are enticed by deals. But the grocery store could be getting substantially more detailed information about its customers exact purchasing and shopping trends. The real question is what will they do with this data?
Image used under a Creative Commons license by flickr user iwantamonkey