Sun, May 04, 2003 - Page 11 News List

Futuristic supermarket unveiled

SMART SQUASH The German retailer Metro AG Hi-tech features include Veggie-Vision, radio-wave transmitting shopping carts and a checkout line without a queue


German retail giant Metro AG on Monday unveiled what it thinks is the high-tech supermarket of the future -- with wireless express checkout, smart shelves that alert staff to expired cream cheese and a "VeggieVision" produce scale that sorts pears from peaches with a digital camera.

Metro's Extra supermarket in Rheinberg, a town of low brick houses in western Germany, relies on wireless networks and radio-controlled smart tags to track goods and customers' purchasing habits. The heavy use of wireless equipment, in combination with older technology such as bar codes, is an attempt to find out what will cut costs and attract customers over the next five to 10 years.

"We are just at the beginning of the technological modernization of retailing," Metro CEO Hans-Joachim Koerber said. "The new technologies will substantially contribute to change in our current picture of the retailing process."

So Metro bosses can keep track of the experiment's progress, the store near the Dutch border is located just 50km north of the company's Dusseldorf headquarters.

Customers -- like the pack of journalists who got a preview Monday along with supermodel Claudia Schiffer, who the company says hails from Rheinberg -- can cruise the aisles with a touchscreen on their shopping carts.

Shoppers effectively log into the system by scanning a customer ID card into the touchscreen. The device lets them scan bar-coded goods as they toss them in the cart, then sends the prices to checkout by radio signals through the wireless network.

That means there's no time-consuming scanning at the checkout: The cashier just flashes the total and takes your money. For repeat customers, the touchscreen fishes up their last visit from the back-room server and proposes it as a shopping list.

By calling up a store map on the touchscreen, customers can get directions to items they want to buy . Schiffer, for instance, tracked down the children's DVD "The Little Polar Bear," a package of stew beef and a matching wine.

"A red wine? Yes, a red wine would be nice," she said.

Other innovations in the store, which opens to the public Tuesday, are the wireless-controlled price displays on shelves that can be instantly updated by remote. There's also the IBM-developed vegetable scale designed to recognize fruit and print out the price sticker.

Perhaps the key feature is smart tags, or RFID chips -- short for radio frequency identification -- that broadcast data for several meters, enabling receiver-equipped smart shelves or handheld scanners to keep of what's in the store.

Thus, the store alerts staff to outdated products or when the milk is running low. More enticingly, RFID offers retailers the chance to make the costly, time-consuming job of taking inventory by hand simply go away.

Yet there are still hurdles before the glitch-free shopping of the future arrives.

The scale, dubbed ``VeggieVision'' by developers, can't always distinguish close calls -- say, between different types of tomatoes -- and invites the customer to complete the choice. It won't catch on if the customer prints a wrong price tag.

More important, only a few products have RFID tags, not enough to make their use at checkout worthwhile. Later it's hoped that the tags will enable customers to simply breeze out and have the bill appear later on their credit card.

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