grocery store futurism

We are living in the future. A couple years ago I was puzzled and mildly put off when my local grocery store installed a flat panel TV at every checkout stand. Lately I can see why they did it, the advertising is probably a nice secondary revenue stream for them, etc..

Yesterday I was walking around my local supermarket and I noticed how fragmented it is. There are three places to buy mozzarella cheese. One in the 'normal' cheese section, one in the pre-packaged picnic deli aisle, and one in the 'fancy' cheese section. Now that I think of it, I didn't check the deli, so it's possible there are 4 places.

Large stores like Target and Home Depot, and increasingly supermarkets, are attractive because they have amazing selections, but they are hard to navigate. Store designers are stuck laying out their vast catalog of products in 2 dimensions, generally. (some stores are multi-level, which has plusses and minuses, but doesn't approach the benefits of true 3-dimensionality, since access between floors is restricted to certain points.) So, they try to group products in an intelligent manner, so that you can find similar things together. This can lead to unintuitive arrangements when you group products by usage, and this is the case with mozzarella cheese.

I'm not particularly trying to solve the 2D layout problem. It's a hard problem, and well understood, and I respect the people who work on it. But I think that by adding an index layer on top we can alleviate and almost eliminate the frustration of crossing and re-crossing a vast store in search of a product, which, let me tell you, is the main feature of my experience at most large stores. I got to thinking about this index layer yesterday. Since I spend most of my time in front of a monitor, I naturally expect relevant data to be connected to itself via a web of links and cross links. The supermarket should be cross-referenced.

But we can do better than little paper signs that tell you where else an item is. What if we put little touchscreen kiosks around the store, maybe with multi-lingual voice recognition so you don't have to touch a keyboard, and we put inexpensive (low resolution) wide angle LCD projectors on the ceilings (so that they project on most of the walkable floor in the store), and we hook into the existing security camera network, and tie it all together with some fancy software?*

Well, then you could walk up to a kiosk and say "mozzarella cheese", and it would show you pictures of the matching products, with prices and (optionally?) nutrition information, and you use the touchscreen to pick one.

Then a little animation on the screen tells you to look at your feet. When you do, you notice that there is a blue arrow, starting at the kiosk and pointing off to your left about ten feet. It is labeled with the name of the product you selected**, and as you walk it extends in front of you and erases itself behind you, guiding you along the best route to the exact location of your cheese of choice.

In addition, you will be able to enter your shopping list onto the store website***, either from your cell phone or from your computer at home, and when you get to the store you simply activate the list and follow the computed shortest path to complete your shopping. The system, once the kinks are worked out, will entirely replace asking a clerk where something is. Half the time they don't even know, anyway. Getting lost in a store equipped with the system will become a purely voluntary experience.

Stores will install it because it is incredibly sticky****. Once you start to use this system, you will not want to go back. Try to imagine using the internet without Google, or organizing a rendezvous without cell phones. Therefore once customers get a taste of it, all the major chains will be follow suit. On top of this, it opens up a lot of tie-in potential with advertisement (turning the entire floor into a message space), coupons, and other promotions.

The technology is possible now; all we're waiting for is for prices to drop and for someone to do it and sell it. If I had the money on hand, and if I knew a little bit more about supermarket information systems, I would start a little company to build it and market it to supermarkets and giant chain stores. Probably someone is working on it already. One day you will see this technology, and you will know that you are living in the future.

*I'm sorry, I get excited and my sentences get too long.
**or not, if you don't want everyone to see what medications you're using.
*** and it will automatically suggest and provide (print?) relevant coupons. This is a great way to retain customers (if you go to the trouble of entering your list on, you are not going to shop at Albertsons).
**** in the sense of customer retention.


  1. how long before they figure out how to get product placement into our dreams, ya think? :-)

  2. The information software you describe is great, but it seems like connecting to it via mobile computer (aka phone) will be a much better system, with no problems of crossing over your arrows with others', public declaration of what you are buying, need for computer kiosks, video recognition, etc.

    It seems like a textbook augmented reality application (I have a mobile computer with a GPS, here is a list of things, calculate a route for me and display the path to the next waypoint).

  3. ha! Unfortunately I actually think that is the purpose of a lot of national brand advertising; not so much to convince you of anything directly, more to just keep the product in your awareness. It's a little depressing how aggressively advertisers take advantage of psychology.

  4. Also yeah, this is in fact textbook augmented reality. I think it will happen first in walled gardens like these. The attraction of doing it this way (for the store) is that the the store controls the information and presentation, and the customers do not need to carry around or reference a gadget. Also, I think I'd rather follow a line on the floor than an arrow on a PDA, it just makes me look like less of a dork. :-P

    I am looking forward to the day when I can use this everywhere, but I expect that I will be able to use it only in certain contexts first, and that the personal gadgets will be popularized a few years later.

  5. I get the feeling that supermarkets want you to feel lost and wander around in the hopes that you will buy other things not on your list. Seriously. I don't see them optimizing your get-in get-out time. Even though they should, and the supermarket that did this (well) first would get a lot of extra business at first... I think supermarkets would only do it if it INCREASED serendipity (where serendipity in this case is defined as "consumers buying things they didn't explicitly intend to upon entering the store").

  6. It's a good point. I think that the context sensitive cross-promotional and advertising potential, combined with superior customer retention, will ultimately outweigh the loss of serendipity, but it might take some time to reach that point.

  7. I could see the retention thing... e.g. "I've already got this thing set up at Albertsons, so I don't want to do it all over again at Ralph's."

    I tend to find though that my choice of grocery store is still mostly dependent on whichever one is closest to me at the time.

    (Except for the Pavillions vs Albertsons thing. But that has its own irrational reasons.)