SUPERMARKET check- outs could change beyond recognition with the advent of a scanning system that reads the contents of a trolley in seconds.
Its developers hope the electronic 'supertag' and reader, launched in South Africa yesterday, will also help to prevent theft. Shops are not only concerned with stopping thefts by customers, but also to cut down thefts by staff and suppliers. The latter accounts for about a quarter of all theft in the retail sector.
Supertag consists of a tiny chip, buried alongside a radio aerial in a barcode-like tag stuck on a tin of baked beans or jar of marmalade. The reader sends out a radio signal which prompts the chip to send a reply indicating the item and the cost.
The system was developed by the South African Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, but the British Technology Group now owns the world-wide rights to the technology. Peter Hawkes, assistant director for electronics at BTG, said the system should help to curb a phenomenon called 'sweethearting', where a check-out operator feeds through goods without recording them.
The supertag, once read, is de-activated. Any items not checked will set off alarms at the shop door. The tags automatically reawaken after about an hour, so one idea for the future might be home stocktaking of cupboard shelves, using a hand-held version of the scanner. Eventually, the tally of food required by a household at its next shop might be ordered over the telephone, direct from this scanner, to await collection from the store.
There are other electronic tag systems around, such as one developed to activate a lock on the ignitions on Ford cars. The same approach has been used to mark livestock and airline baggage. The key difference is that the supertag system can cope with lots of chips in close proximity all sending signals at once. It can also handle 50 items every second.
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