Monday, December 17, 2007

Adweek looks at "smart" shopping carts

Regular readers of this blog know that I'm no fan of the so-called smart cart. The idea of taking a touch screen computer, slapping it onto a cart, and offering features that vary from passive advertising to loyalty to self price-check just doesn't seem to fit with how today's shopper thinks and acts inside the store. Further, the carts have been prone to a huge number of technical and logistical issues stemming from the fact that shopping carts are some of the most heavily-abused equipment you're likely to encounter. According to an article in this week's Adweek, it looks like I'm not alone in my thinking:
While the use of such database technology inevitably brings up privacy concerns, it also has the potential to be annoying. Moreover, it's expensive. The average, analog shopping cart costs somewhere between $150 and $200, but a smart cart can be upwards of $2,000. Since it's unlikely that spending 10 times more will lead to 10 times the benefit, smart shopping carts are a hard line item to defend, particularly for supermarkets, where razor-thin margins that average 1% scarcely make room for investments in lavish techno-perks.

"The cost is prohibitive," said StarCom's Warren. "I don't see it making it through ROI hurdles." As a result, smart shopping carts are still stuck in the pilot stage. The highest profile effort with the carts, Stop & Shop's EasyShop (formerly known as Shopping Buddy)—a small tablet that consumers activate with their Stop & Shop card—is still only available in 90 New England stores.
While the privacy and intrusiveness issues can probably be solved, that ROI one is going to be tougher. Granted, the price of technology continues to drop, and new materials and advances in battery technology will eventually solve some of the up-front and ongoing cost issues currently associated with smart cart technology. But at what point will it make sense for retailers to adopt these things en masse (provided they can be shown to provide any benefit to shoppers, of course). What's the time to a positive return on investment for a standard cart? How much "credit" will retailers be willing to extend in order to reap larger returns from the equipment in the long run? What kind of effect will the mass adoption of these things have on store traffic patterns, the store layout and the use of checkout lanes? Will there be in-house technical support available to help people whose carts crash mid-visit?

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