There's a nice white wine in Aisle 6 that would go perfectly with your salmon, it beeps. Your favorite brand of salami is on sale and, by the way, it's been six weeks since you bought toilet paper.
Nightmare or dream come true, the smart shopping cart is coming soon to a grocery near you, along with an array of other gizmos designed to make your trip to the supermarket more efficient and profitable - and to keep you coming back.
Researchers at IBM recently assembled several of the high-tech machines for a demonstration at their Industry Solutions Lab in Hawthorne. Among them were the smart shopping cart, a computerized produce scale called "Veggie Vision," and a fascinating projection tentatively dubbed the "Everything Display."
Some are being tested in stores while others are in various stages of development. Other companies including NCR, Fujitsu and Hewlett-Packard are also working on similar products, sometimes in partnerships.
"We'll see more change in the next five years in the way people shop than in the last 20," said Dan Hopping, a consulting manager with IBM who specializes in store operations and merchandising.
Kate Delhagen, a retail analyst with Forrester Research in Atlanta, said that until now, most shoppers have seen high-tech applications only at the checkout counter, with its credit card swiper and bar-code scanner.
"But now, the number of applications is multiplying and consumers are becoming more familiar with computer interfaces. So there's a lot of experimentation, a lot of gadgets and gizmos, a lot of high-tech things happening in a lot of different stores."
Many of the applications can be used in any retail setting, but grocers especially are "under tremendous pressure right now to create a better in-store experience for their customers or they're going to lose them on price to Wal-Mart," she said.
The smart shopping cart looks like a normal one except for an interactive screen and scanner mounted near the shopper. Once the shopper swipes his store card, his shopping history is available for all kinds of purposes, from presenting a suggested shopping list to alerting him to discounts or reminding him about perishables purchased a month ago.
If the customer scans her purchases herself for self-checkout, the cart will know about the salmon she just bought and can suggest a wine or a recipe.
Hopping said a shopping cart could eventually be outfitted to interact with the shelves so a shopper could see an ad or an offer about chicken noodle soup just as he heads into the soup section.
The smart cart raises concerns about privacy for many people. Hopping emphasized that consumers are free not to use a store card and thereby not have their purchases tracked, but he believes they will find that the convenience outweighs the intrusion.
Kathryn Cullen, a technology specialist at Kurt Salmon Associates, a retail consulting firm, said some retailers are shying away from such extensive use of the store card, also known as a "loyalty card."
"This is a very sensitive topic. I may not want the store to be broadcasting what I bought last time I was in here. You're getting closer and closer to being inside my home."
On the other hand, she said, consumers have a history of eventually acceding to such intrusion for the sake of convenience.
"Look at the E-Z Pass," she said. "They know where we're going but we use it to save time."
On the horizon, the consultants say, is the day when every product is tagged with an RFID, or radio frequency identification chip, instead of a bar code. The chips, which don't have to be scanned, would allow shoppers to leave the store without checking out at all and get the bill on their credit card or store account.
There doesn't seem to be any controversy about "Veggie Vision," a scale for fruits and vegetables that is hooked up to a digital camera and a library of hundreds of pictures of produce. When a shopper puts tomatoes on the scale, the machine evaluates their color, texture and shape to determine what they are, then weighs and prices the purchase.
Not only can it tell an apple from a tomato, but unlike some checkout clerks, it can tell a McIntosh apple from a Red Delicious.
The "Everything Display" is a computerized camera and projector that can flash an advertisement, for example, onto a bare wall in the format of a touch screen on a computer. There is no screen, but when a shopper reacts to the ad by touching a spot on the projection, the camera interprets the movement and the projector flashes the appropriate page onto the wall.
"It turns any wall, or even a floor, into an interactive display," said IBM research scientist Tony Levas. "People react as if it were a touch screen. I think they think it is a touch screen."
By Jim Fitzgerald