A New Way to Grocery Shop

by Ben Miller

A handheld privacy invasion?

A handheld privacy invasion?

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


8 responses to “A New Way to Grocery Shop

  1. I’ve used these things a couple of times now, and I would say that it doesn’t appear that the device really knows where I am, either by a positioning system or RFID. The coupon offers so far have been pretty “dumb” in the sense of showing me random things regardless of where I am in the store or what I’m buying. Or the same thing over and over again, orange juice being a common one.

    I wouldn’t entirely rule it out though, because the devices clearly transmit wireless data, so it’s kinda like… why not? Having that shopping path data, both individual and aggregate, must be the holy grail for the stores.

  2. It does not really worry me, but the I don’t worry about the bonus cards and some of my friends do.

    I have not seen it here, which is kind of a surprise (I’m in KC, MO and we’re kind of a test market site) but if it offered specials/coupon value for things I’m already buying I’d appreciate the help. (I AM still puzzled by the fact that we’re still one of the few markets for MacRib, but there’s no accounting for taste.)

    And we usually go with a fairly strict list, about 10% maximum dollars are spent on things NOT on the list.

  3. Helena Montana

    Once scanned, can you unscan an item when you put it back if you decide you don’t want it anymore?

  4. On a related note, how does Giant enforce that you don’t put anything in your cart that hasn’t been scanned, since the cashier just downloads the scanner data?

  5. Pingback: The Grocery Scanner | Cooking With Ease

  6. To Helena:

    Yes, you can unscan items, no problem.

    I suspect there is no GPS in the scanner because it can tell where you’ve been anyway by the sequence of items you’ve scanned. Though there’s no reason they couldn’t put that technology into the scanner. If you can put a GPS in a cell phone you can certainly put one in one of these items, which are considerably larger.

    It probably doesn’t guarantee against shoplifting but you do have to unload the items onto the belt to have them bagged, and the list shows up on the screen where the person bagging them can see it. So anyone trying to shoplift runs a reasonably high risk of getting caught. Not really worth it for that can of baked beans or tube of toothpaste. And of course the self-checkout lanes already leave open the possibility that people will do this and those have been around for a while. Presumably the grocery stores have decided the loss is small enough to be outweighed either by increased volume or cost savings associated with the technology.

    My experience was that the initial novelty kind of made you want to scan things just to see it work. This probably wears off pretty quickly, but I’m betting the people who placed these things have determined that it will cause some small increment of additional spending. Otherwise it’s hard to see why they would invest the money.

    When the person at the store gave me my scanner I asked how the union felt about this and they commented that this was not going to cause anyone to lose their job, but it might end up having people positioned at different places in the store. So what you may have is a grocery business doing more boutique retailing on the floor.

    Big brother already knows so much about you that I doubt this will make much difference. They know where you’re going, they know where you’ve been, they know what you’ve bought and who you bought it from, who you’ve called – you name it. The undoubtedly know things about you that you don’t know yourself. If you want privacy, better cut up all your credit cards, close your email accounts and shut down your computer, cancel your cell phone and deal strictly in cash.

  7. Pingback: The Grocery Scanner | Slingbox | Slingmedia

  8. it is really true???

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