I’ve recently started to see articles about a new technology, Smart Shelves, that may be coming to a grocery store near you in the next couple years. Based off the same technology used by the Microsoft Kinect video game add-on, this technology will allow the shelf to recognize what you are looking at and provide related information. The technology is not expected to be ready to be tested in stores until 2015 possibly.
So what might a smart shelf do?
The Kinect add-on for the Microsoft Xbox 360 gaming system is essentially a motion detection device that allows you to play the game without needing to use a game controller. Instead of pushing buttons on a controller, you physically act out the activity you want your character in the game to perform and the camera and motion detection software in the Kinect “sees” your movements and causes the character in the game to do the same thing. Pretty cool technology.
So how does this relate to grocery shopping. The idea behind the smart shelf is that it could track your movements and then it could tell what items you are looking at or what items you are grabbing off the shelf. Based on that there are a number of things it might do.
- If it sees you looking at the box of Cheerios it could then display an ad about Cheerios to entice you to buy.
- It could print out a coupon for the item that you are getting.
- It could show a recipe that uses that product that you could print out on the spot.
A safety feature
Another usage of this smart shelf technology that is being looked at is protection for those with food allergies.
For example, peanut allergies are prevalent and for some people they can be deadly. If you suffer with these allergies then you know that this can be very tricky because peanut byproducts are used in many items.
Potentially, with this technology you could identify your allergies as part of your profile with the store rewards program. Then when the shelf recognizes your presence, it could display a warning for those items that contain substances you are allergic to.
Sound like a little too much science fiction? Actually, the technology isn’t that far from being able to do something like this.
The problems with smart shelf technology
First, and most obviously, some people have privacy concerns about this kind of technology. While the makers say that no video would be stored and they don’t intend to do anything to identify you personally at this time, that doesn’t change the fact that technically such a system would be capable of such things.
My bigger concern would be what this might do to your grocery shopping budget.
As if we don’t face enough advertising, now we may be faced with it right on the shelf. Think advertising doesn’t work? Melts in your mouth, ___ __ ____ ____. Bet you didn’t have any trouble finishing that sentence. Did you know that slogan is nearly 60 years old? Repetition works!
Coupons would be an advantage right? Well maybe. What if I only need one box of Cheerios, but it prints out a coupon offering $1 off 2 boxes? I could find my cart a lot more full than I planned by the time I hit the door.
Recipes? Same thing. Not necessarily bad, but I went to the store to pick up one item and I come out carrying a bag with all the other things I needed to make the recipe.
None of this is bad by itself, but it is bad if it entices you to spend money you don’t have to buy things you don’t really need.
Stores are great at marketing
Grocery store chains are some of the best marketers around. Very little happens accidentally in a well designed grocery store.
It is no accident that staples like milk are in the back so you have to walk by all the other items to get there. It isn’t luck that puts the Oreos at perfect eye level and the cheaper generic brand on a less convenient to reach shelf. And, of course, the kids snacks aren’t placed at your eye level, they are placed on the shelf that is at the perfect eye level for junior.
Nothing wrong with any of that. Marketing isn’t evil. But we do need to be savvy customers so we don’t get manipulated into buying things we don’t need and can’t afford. I suspect that smart shelf technology when it finally arrives will open a whole new frontier for grocery store marketing.