Why the grocery store of the future never happened
- (Photo: TBD Staff)
A little more than a decade ago, the grocery industry had a radical vision for the near future.
No checkout lines: Customers skip the cash register and walk through a scanner, which counts their items and charges their credit cards. All coupons are digital. Inventory is tracked by radio-wave technology. Stockboys wear suits of silver.
“Everyone was convinced that there were really going to be some dramatic changes,” says John Stanton, chair of the food marketing department at St. Joseph’s University. “No one would put their finger on when it would happen,” he adds, but the industry seemed poised for revolution. Some predicted changes within five years.
Ten years later, customers are still shuffling through check-out lines, waiting for cashiers to scan their peanut butter and Wonder Bread the same way they did in the '80s. Lines are still spilling deep into the aisles. The dream of a high-tech store with fast, accurate stocking and an effortless check-out failed to materialize.
What went wrong? Everything. Technology didn’t develop as expected and stayed too costly; retailers and manufacturers got into a tug of war over who should pay; and grocers lost their nerve.
Behind everything is RFID, short for radio-frequency identification. The technology sends a wireless signal between a tag and a receiver. Anyone who’s used an E-Z pass to cross a bridge or breeze through a toll owes a few minutes of her life to RFID, and the potential benefit to an industry like groceries is huge. If every item in the store is tagged, anything can be found fast, even if it’s out of sight.
“If you have fresh produce and you’re driving your forklift into the warehouse, you want to make sure you’re sending out the oldest produce first,” says Jon Mellor of GS1, a nonprofit organization that develops standards for supply chains. Searching with a receiver for the oldest produce nets quick results. “An inventory that might take you two hours to do with barcode can literally be done in two minutes with one person.”
Explains James Tour, the Rice University professor behind the latest generation of the technology: “The RFID tag talks back to you. It tells you who he is, when he expires.”
In addition to revolutionizing stocking and inventory, the tags would allow items to be scanned as they left the store. That's a development that would end the tyranny of the check-out line, a problem that self-check-out, which uses the same old technology, has only slightly mitigated. Shoppers could also enjoy TV screens on carts that showed ads or information for certain products as they moved past them in the store.
But as Tour puts it, “technology moves at the pace we move it.” Tour’s tags are printable, as opposed to the silicon variety that are already in use in E-Z passes and passports. Right now, those printable tags are too big for many grocery items. “The size of the RFID tag is about three and a half times the size of a barcode,” he says. “If we knew how to easily make it smaller, we would.”
Price is also a sticking point. “Right now, the cost is about three cents apiece,” says Tour. “It’s not until they get to be one cent apiece that places like Walmart say they’ll get them.” Silicon tags cost 50 cents apiece.
Some say the problem isn’t price, but who should pay for the tags. Stanton characterizes the situation as a stand-off between manufacturers and grocers—grocers want the suppliers to build the tags into their packaging, while suppliers want grocers to pay for the tags.
“It’s not that different from when RCA wanted to make color televisions,” says Stanton. “The producers of TV shows didn’t want to produce color TV shows because no one had color TVs. RCA didn’t want to produce color TVs because there were no color TV shows. It’s the same thing here. Someone will have to break the impasse.”
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