A smart way to shop

A new generation of shopping carts is coming, promising benefits for grocers and shoppers

the New Shopping Cart

Smart shopping carts are rolling closer. Futurists have long promised shoppers that smart cards are on the horizon, and today, companies are demoing trollies able to do everything from lead customers to the right aisle and collect payment, to delivering location analytics to the store owner. Yet, curiously, few stores have so far gone high tech with their carts.

But that could soon change. In the words is a shopping robot from Wall, N.J.-based tech company Five Elements Robotics. The Dash robot shopping cart, rumoured to be in development in partnership with Walmart, will map a customer's route through a store, check them out, and carry items out to their car. The cart is also said to be weatherproof and theft-proof. Now in the prototype stage, CEO Wendy Roberts believes the cart will go into production by 2017, and says she's received a lot of interest from retailers. The estimated cost is between US$15,000 and $20,000.

Cambridge Consultants, a product development company, based in the U.K., is working on an add-on to the traditional shopping cart. Using wheels embedded with sensors, the cart will help shoppers find the best route through a supermarket and . highlight where to find infrequently purchased items. The technology will also tell retailers a shopper's location, which means they can give targeted coupon offers, explains AJ Van Bochoven, Cambridge Consultants' head of retail innovation.

The high-tech wheel is retrofitted to existing shopping carts, which means only one wheel needs to be replaced. It's as simple as installing a smoke alarm, says Van Bochoven. A network of smart beacons also needs to be installed in the store.

Data collected from the sensor can help retailers better understand shopping behaviour, which in turn means store managers can improve shelf and aisle layout. It can also help the retailer anticipate lineups at checkouts, Van Bochoven says. Another advantage to Cambridge’s product, still in prototype, is cost: about US$10 per cart.

But a cart doesn’t need to be equipped with cutting-edge technology to see improvements. Sometimes it’s the small tweaks that make a difference. A polymer cart developed by Bemis Retail Solutions, based in Sheboygan Falls, Wis., features bag hooks, an optional basket and, perhaps most convenient of all, a cup holder. The handles of the cart also have space for customers to prop their iPad, tablet or coupons, so that they can check out their grocery lists while shopping.

Bemis carts are currently used by Whole Foods in the U.S. They’ll soon make their Canadian debut with the opening of Whole Foods’ newest B.C. location. They cost between 20 and 50 per cent more than traditional steel carts, says Rick Stauff, general manager, but will last for 10 years or more. Traditional stainless steel carts break down between two and five years, he says. But why update your carts rather than your store? The advantage of using smart carts rather than installing in-store systems, says Van Bochoven “is the low cost and limited need for infrastructure.” An added benefit of smart carts, says Roberts, is the new generation of customers she believes her robot carts will attract. “Younger customers aren’t used to talking to people,” she says. “They’re very comfortable talking to a virtual reality interface.”

Van Bochoven says the Cambridge system can be targeted at different consumer group. “ gives the opportunity to target the shopping experience for millennials to be more adventurous,” he says, suggesting it can lead them to try different or complementary products. For the older shoppers, it can help them make their way around the store.

A recent study, which included Cornell University professor Brian Wansink among its researchers, looked at the effects of smart carts that track spending in real time. It found that budget shoppers, when faced with a running total of their bill, tend to spend more than budget shoppers who see their total at the checkout. And budget shoppers, seeing that they are spending less than anticipated, will splurge on more expensive brand-name products. Plus, budget shoppers are more likely to return to stores where smart shopping carts are available. The gist? Authors of the study concluded that smart carts benefit shoppers as well as retailers.

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