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How hi-tech will transform your supermarket

Think self-scanning is the summit of supermarket gizmos? Think again, says “Today” show food editor Phil Lempert.

From self-scan checkouts at grocery stores to electronic information kiosks at retail chains, businesses are making technology an ever more central part of the overall shopping experience.

IBM, which is investing heavily in shopping computerization, reports that shoppers from different countries across the board are increasingly open to using new in-store technologies. The company says that “super-shoppers” have become empowered by their ability to access data online, and this ability translates into an extremely knowledgeable consumer base, with specific customer-service needs.

According to research compiled by my Web site, Supermarketguru.com, it is the under 18s and female shoppers between the ages of 24 and 45 who are most likely to take advantage of new in-store technologies. Of all the technologies available, including self-scan checkouts, recipe kiosks, information kiosks, handheld scanners and frequent-shopper cards, consumers were drawn most often to the use of self-scan checkout centers and frequent-shopper cards. Although easy access to information was considered important, surveyed customers flocked to technologies that, above all, saved them time and money.

Obviously, there’s always room for improvement. With the added convenience of in-store technologies that provide value-added information and lower prices, retailers can adopt more customized shopping experiences (and generate increased returns). In addition to traditional, demographics-based tailoring, attention must also be paid to customers who may share the same statistical characteristics, but may have vastly different shopping habits and desires.

In other words, women in their early 40s, who are married, have two kids, work and have a household income of $125,000, may not seek out the same type of shopping experience. One woman may prefer recycled goods, even if they cost more, while another woman from the same demographic may prefer clipping coupons. Understanding why a particular customer shops is key in creating efficient in-store technologies.

A recent survey conducted by the IBM Institute for Business Value attempted to do this, and targeted those who shop for groceries, those in need of consumer electronics and those looking for clothes.

The survey reports that regardless of their demographics, consumer's value-consciousness can vary by the shopping occasion. For instance, 50 percent of grocery shoppers looking for a convenient store experience valued services that would enable them to check out quickly, like the self-scan checkout. Consumer electronics shoppers preferred in-store technologies that helped them with their shopping goals. For example, about 77 percent of those looking to replace or upgrade a consumer technology said they would benefit from in-store devices that could provide more information on the product and guide the consumer through the purchase process.

Finally, the needs of clothing shoppers looking for convenience and efficiency — 49 percent of those surveyed — aligned closely with the needs of similarly focused consumer electronics shoppers. The 33 percent of apparel shoppers searching for something exciting and new, on the other hand, responded well to store layout and service delivery.

As customers come to expect better and more productive shopping experiences, retailers, in particular supermarkets, will have to tailor to the needs of individual consumers and supply greater convenience, lower prices and easy-to-use technologies. Self-scan checkout centers and kiosks are just the beginning. Computer-enhanced shopping carts, checkouts and kiosks spread throughout the store to provide recipe and nutritional info are there with just one thing in mind: Creating a better shopping experience so that we are not lured away by that supercenter down the road.

Phil Lempert is food editor of the “Today” show. He welcomes questions and comments, which can be sent