High-Tech Shopping

Last week I spent a whole morning at a mega Sainsbury’s supermarket in Chingford, somewhere on the outskirts of East London. The British TV series, Gadget Man was filming content for a new show and they asked us if they could try out our lambent shopping handle.

The handle we designed is a minimalistic, mobile and fully functional display that clips onto supermarket shopping carts/trollys, intended to help people decide when choosing between which groceries to buy. It can be easily customized to provide salient information about the food dimensions people care about, such as salt content, fat content and food-miles. The latter are represented by varying lengths of a series of LEDs on the handle and a changing emoticon showing their total miles against a social norm. For example, scanning a packet of quinoa results in all 16 LEDs lighting up because it comes from multiple countries in Asia, whereas scanning a ready-made lasagne lights up only 3 of the LEDs, because it is made from Scottish beef. (Lambent by the way means having the property of moving lightly or flickering gently over a surface – which our handle does rather than being in your face.)

At a glance, a shopper can compare the same product for different brands, for example, two types of chocolate, bottled water or apples. The price might be the same, but the salt or sugar content or whether it has been locally sourced varies. While much of this information may be available on the food packaging it is often in small print or presented in such a way that it takes ages to find and can be confusing to the shopper. We make it compelling and easy to read off. Some might argue that smartphone apps do the same job. We showed empirically that this is far from the truth; they are often fiddly and tedious to use, and can overwhelm the shopper who is holding their phone in one hand, a product in the other while trying to scan it and navigate a complex store environment, usually in a hurry.

The lambent shopping handle was just one of several new gizmos being filmed intended to make shopping easier and more enjoyable. So, we got to watch Richard Ayoade (the british comedian, actor, writer and TV presenter) in the flesh for the whole morning act out various scenes with the latest gadgetry. When not being filmed, he sat or stood calmly in the store reading a book. He was happy to let me have my photo taken standing next to him. How cool is that?

richard aoyade
Our approach to enhancing shopping is to provide just enough information about certain product properties in order to help shoppers make more informed purchasing decisions. It is lightweight, playful and simple – enticing you to think rather than accept what others recommend. Quite different from much contemporary thinking about how we should use technology which promotes deciding for the user. For example, only this morning I was listening to a programme on Radio 4 about “Silicon Valley’s vision of local high-tech shopping”. The vision was same old, same old. An example of the future was of Jenny walking into a Burger Bistro, where upon her smartphone is recognized by the Point of Sales that then flashes up what she ate last time. The waiter on seeing her and the information about Jenny picks up a plate of fried sweet potato fries and takes it to her table saying in a cheery voice, “Hello Jenny, I thought you would like some of these again!” without asking her. This kind of personalized service is likened to ‘Rockstar treatment’. Just like Justin Beaver or David Beckham never have to decide or ask but always get the food they want. But sometimes even they might want change…

Whereas the likes of PayPal, eBay and other retail companies are pushing for more of this kind of personalisation in restaurants and stores, Isabelle Szmigin, a professor of marketing at Birmingham University, offered a refreshingly sceptical riposte, pointing out that just because Jenny ordered sweet potato fries one day, it does not mean she wants them every time she goes back to the same restaurant. While many of us maybe creatures of habit, most of us crave new experiences, tastes, products and surprises. We don’t want to be stuck with a Groundhog Day mindset. The model of personalized shopping based on your past experiences and purchases is set in the past. High tech retailing needs to break out of the automated recommender way of trying to please and nudge people. We can do much better when thinking of how to enhance shopping and dining experiences with technology.

A brand new Waitrose opened last month in Hove. It is the talk of the town (we have been waiting years for one) and it seems a destination in itself to visit judging by the line of cars queuing up for the car park. My fellow commuter regaled to me how it was the highlight of her weekend. She went with her chum on a Saturday afternoon and sat down at a table in the middle of the store (next to the wine section) and they both ordered a glass of house wine and some tapas. Whilst enjoying their repast, they merrily selected their shopping by tapping icons on a tablet, craftily positioned on their table. A minion then went on their behalf to do their shopping, that was ready for them to collect on their way out. No hassle, no queuing. There is a premium for this service but what a fun way to while away an hour – quaffing while doing online shopping in an actual bricks and mortar supermarket.

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