VIRTUALLY SUPER

Buying groceries in the not-so-distant future could involve a PC, the Internet and a smart card. Will the techno-supermarket catch on? Helen Hague reports

You may not have been smitten by trolley rage, but you have probably felt harassed and pushed for time as you reach the supermarket check-out. Even the most hardened shopaholic doesn't get much gratification from stocking up on baked beans, toilet rolls and washing powder every week.

For stressed "time-poor" consumers like this, the news is good: the technology exists to take the drudgery out of the supermarket run. Fierce competition among supermarket chains should ensure that, within a year or two, electronic convenience shopping will arrive at a store near you.

The "power shopping" concept, devised by ICL Retail Systems and unveiled to shop managers this month, aims to take the slog out of buying groceries. It combines the Internet, smart card technology and interactive in-store systems on a shopping trip that starts at home with the computer screen.

Forget lists scribbled on the back of an envelope; this weekly shopping checklist is stored on a PC. The supermarket web site is then located on the Internet, and compared with the household checklist.

At the heart of the system is a smart card - the equivalent of a supermarket loyalty card - on which personal data is stored. When it is inserted in a home PC, a menu pops up based on this information. It might remind you that it is your partner's birthday on Tuesday, or that your toddler turns three next weekend, and will provide a list of items you might need for the event. If selected, any additional goods are automatically added to the shopping list. The complete list is then checked against an "electronic larder" showing what is in the house already, also stored on the PC. A list of the items needed is then transferred to the smart card, ready for a streamlined shopping trip.

At an interactive kiosk near the store entrance, the shopper slips the card into a terminal and is welcomed by a personalised on-screen message. The store suggests amendments and additions to the list, and outlines relevant special offers based on past buying habits. If any are accepted, the list is amended accordingly and printed out, indicating where each item is located in the store and which route will help you to buy them in the most convenient order. Meanwhile, electronic loyalty coupons are added to your card. Heavy goods are packed ready at the checkout, while other items - including last-minute impulse buys - are scanned and updated and your new spending habits stored on the smart card. Payment is by electronic debit, initiated by the card. A home delivery service is also available.

Power shopping sounds too good to be true, but is it all it's cracked up to be? If you enjoy anonymity, the answer is no. Rip up your supermarket loyalty card now. Retailers are hungry for information which will help them target you as a valued customer - and, of course get you to spend a larger slice of your disposable income in their store. Recognising that all those costly edge-of-town superstores will be redundant if digital shopping takes off, they are turning the new technology to their advantage by using it to nurture customers and increase market share. Safeway has already introduced self-scanning "guns" at 24 stores and there are plans to introduce it nationally. It allows loyalty card holders to zip through the check-out without the inconvenience of unloading their trolleys.

Alun Roberts, manager of technical strategy at ICL Retail Systems, believes a lot of customers have missed the point about supermarket loyalty cards. The consumer wants discounts, while the store wants information. "If the customer is willing to reveal his or her behaviour, stores can begin to form a proper relationship and serve them better. It is all to do with segmenting - offering a tailored service to high-value customers and, using electronic interfacing, getting that relationship back to where it used to be 50 years ago."

The confectionery and food giant Nestle will be opening two "virtual shops" in Switzerland next month, along similar lines. But the day when a supermarket trip will be completely replaced by a meander round the shelves in a virtual shopping mall is still a long way off. However, digital shopping in a more primitive form has already arrived. You can order Sainsbury's wine and gizmos from the Innovations catalogue on the Internet. You can buy videos from Virgin, books from WH Smith and hi-fis from Dixons on the UK Shopping Centre on-line service launched by CompuServe last year. In the US, such systems are widely used.

But how much of an appetite does the British public have for this kind of shopping experience? Doreen Dignan, media research manager for The Network, part of the Ogilvy Media Company, believes people will shop in a digital environment "if it will save time or money". She has conducted market research and found a considerable appetite, especially among women, to do routine shopping without having to go to the shops. "The response was more positive than we thought across all socio-demographic groups."

But there are limits. A programme which allows a bride-to-be to see a 3D virtual image of herself on-screen, kitted out in various wedding frocks, did not go down too well. It seems there is no substitute for trying on dresses, feeling the fabric and having a twirl in front of the mirror. An in-store kiosk where wedding guests can view the bridal registry and check what has already been ordered to equip the happy couple's new home sounds more promising.

Meg Abdy, senior consultant at the Henley Forecasting Centre, believes digital shopping will only take off if it makes consumers' lives "easier or more exciting". Stores which score highly on trust stand to gain, she believes. The British Market Research Bureau found Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury's and Tesco were in the top four most trusted companies. "Customers are constantly bombarded with choices. They have a sense that things are speeding up and they have less and less time. They trust retailers to edit their choices, whether in the shop or on a computer screen."

Digital shopping, she believes, is never going to replace traditional shopping, but will co-exist and help streamline consumer choice. "The real sticking point is not so much technology as delivery - getting the right product to people at the time they find most convenient."

Graham Freeman, retail director at design consultancy BDG/McColl, thinks technology will enhance the in-store shopping experience. "Stores will have to be more reactive, dynamic and entertaining places. If you are, say, at a sports club and can access products through technology, why not go to a store and do it? Retailers will have to be more inventive, it will drive up quality. The customer will be the winner."

Not all customers will win, however. As retailers gear up for the next phase of new technology, Alun Roberts at ICL predicts a new underclass: "a lot of low-income people who will, I'm afraid, be disenfranchised from what is going to happen." To gain full citizenship in the digital shopping community, you will need a PC, access to the Internet - and, of course, income to dispose of. This, after all, is what the retailer is after. !

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week

Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
    Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

    Look what's mushrooming now!

    Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
    Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

    Oeuf quake

    Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
    Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

    Terry Venables column

    Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
    Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin