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Supermarkets go high tech

Supermarket expert Phil Lempert says grocers are using computers to anticipate your every need — but should you worry about what they’re learning about your preferences?
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Supermarkets across America are introducing a new wave of computers and other high tech gear that will help them anticipate your every need. But “Today” contributor and supermarket expert Phil Lempert says that means consumers need to take steps to protect their privacy. He offers some advice, and takes a look at three new technologies that could change the way you shop.

WE SHOP THERE 2.2 times a week, we love free samples and coupons — and hate waiting in line. Produce managers who give us insider information on what fruits and veggies are the tastiest soon become invaluable to our shopping trip. So do the meat cutters who are willing to prepare our order, just the way we like it — even if it means trimming the fat off a steak just a bit closer to the bone than they normally do.

In today’s very competitive environment, supermarkets are attempting to build strong relationships with their present customers… and doing everything they can to attract new customers. It’s costing them hundreds of millions of dollars that is being invested in the latest technologies with the intention of getting a bit closer to understanding and satisfying customer needs.

Since scanners were first installed in supermarket checkout stands, stores have been able to collect information about which products are being bought at individual stores. The obvious advantage has been to insure that in a particular store, the best-selling products are always in stock, and items that don’t sell are discontinued in order to make room for new ones.

Thirty years later, the supermarket is set to become one of the most sophisticated users of computer technology. Frequent shopper programs, now commonplace, are evolving into intelligent devices that can print coupons and recipes based on your preferences and past shopping habits, as well as notifying the store manager that you have entered the store. Mobile scanning will make sure you never again forget an item you have run out of. And for those who want to get out of the store quickly, self-scanning units will insure that your exit is fast… and your payment is processed without cash or a credit card to slow you down.


Remember that in order for these programs to work effectively, the supermarket must identify you. That way they can be sure you get personally targeted offers, samples and rewards.

But consumers beware — many stores ask for all kinds of personal information that you may not want to share.

Read any program membership application carefully. Be sure there is a privacy statement and that you have the option to prohibit the store from selling your information and name to a third party.

Some stores ask for a Social Security number, driver’s license number or credit card information. But unless it is used to verify check cashing privileges, my suggestion is to leave those fields blank.

All that a store should require is your name, address and ZIP code. And in some cases, your e-mail address may be submitted rather than your street address.


We decided to take a look at just three of the new supermarket technologies that are now being introduced to supermarkets. Many more innovations, including those that connect directly to the Internet for ordering groceries and computer display screens built right in to the shopping cart are being tested.

But we selected these technologies because they are already in production, and should soon reach your supermarket no matter where in America you live.

Your frequent shopper card is about to change the way you shop. Now, you hand it to the cashier as you check out and you might get “instant” savings or in some cases accumulate award points. But just imagine how helpful it would be if you could walk into the store, insert your card into a kiosk and have it print out the day’s special offers — customized to the foods you like and buy, instead of inundating you with product information about items you would never even think of using. Kiosks, like the IBM NetVista, can not only print out shopping lists, coupons and recipes but can also identify your presence to the store manager. Maybe it’s your birthday — the store manager will know and can offer his congratulations — and perhaps a free birthday cake as well. Stores may choose to reward their most frequent and best customers, much like the airlines do, with special offers and extra special service.

Think of the amount of packages you handle during the day, all with bar codes. Imagine how easy it would be to prepare next week’s shopping list if you had saved information from all of those packages. With the pocket-sized Consumer Memory Scanner from Symbols Technology, you can. About the size of your key chain car door opener, this scanner not only will help you perfect your shopping list, but also interfaces with your home computer for online ordering and with the supermarket’s technology to notify you of additional, and custom, specials.

Survey after survey reports that we love supermarket shopping, but hate the checkout. We’ve told you before about the U-scan self checkout system, and how you can get out of the store faster and without having any contact with a cashier. But are you ready to use your thumbprint to pay for your groceries? No more cash, no more credit or debit cards — just a quick scan of your thumbprint and your groceries are paid for and your money is transferred right to the store.

Supermarkets operate on a very low margin of profit, so they are constantly looking for ways that can increase their efficiencies. Some new technologies, like the U-scan, are designed to reduce labor costs and improve customer service.

As all this technology comes to the supermarket, most shoppers I speak with agree that it’s the personal service and relationship that a store offers that keeps them coming back. The question and opportunity is whether these technologies will enhance that experience or just be installed for the sake of technology.

Phil Lempert, the Supermarket Guru®, analyzes the food marketing industry to keep consumers up-to-date about cutting-edge marketing trends. He is a regular “Today” show contributor, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, and host of Shopping Smart on the WOR Radio Network. For more food and health information, you can check out Phil’s Web site at: