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Smart carts and stupid shoppers

October 22, 2007

by Ivan Raconteur

One can’t help but wonder if the human animal is nearing the brink of extinction.

It is just possible that we are becoming too lazy and too foolish to take care of our own basic needs.

Take, for example, the way we procure food.

Back in the days when we were running around in animal skins and getting excited about a new invention called fire, if we wanted a snack, we had two choices.

We could go find some tasty creature that was slower than we were, whack it over the head with our club, and drag it back to our cave.

If we were unable to find an animal that was willing to be sacrificed for our supper, we had to forage for roots, berries, and plants that we could eat.

Eventually, we got handier when it came to vittles, and began to specialize.

Once we got the money thing figured out, we could buy our bread from the local baker, pick up some fish from a local fishmonger, milk and eggs from a farmer, and meat from the butcher.

Then, the industrial revolution came along and gave us all more free time.

Once we discovered leisure time, we didn’t want to waste it tracking down food, and this led to the development of general stores that sold a variety of products under one roof.

These stores were often run by friendly people who knew their products and their customers, giving birth to the concept of customer service.

We were a bit further from the source of our food, but maybe the shop keeper still knew the guy who knew the guy who killed or harvested the food in the first place.

Then, along came supermarkets.

As our affluence increased, we decided we needed more choices, and we were willing to give up service to get them.

Supermarkets made it possible for us to get through a shopping expedition without ever having to actually talk to anyone.

We no longer had any idea where the products came from, and since we couldn’t get first-hand information, the government stepped in and forced manufacturers to stick labels on things to tell us what is in them.

Larger supermarkets led to larger suppliers, which made it possible to make people sick nationally, instead of just locally, when the food supply is contaminated.

Other developments include personal shoppers who will do our shopping for us, and companies that provide home delivery of groceries.

We just call them up or punch some information into our computers, and some nice person will bring the comestibles to our house, and maybe even put things away for us.

We are so busy earning money that now we have to pay others to do things we once did for ourselves.

In recent years, we have seen the development of the mother of all shopping tools, the high tech shopping cart.

The manufacturers still haven’t figured out how to engineer a cart that will roll straight, but they have made it possible for even the most simple-minded shopper to get through a trip to the grocery store.

These new “smart” carts are fitted with touch-screen computers. As shoppers make their way around the store, they scan each item as they put it into their cart.

Promoters say this will help shoppers by providing information about their purchases.

For example, the cart will warn shoppers that are purchasing too much junk food. It is not clear why one would need a computer to tell him that a cart full of snack cakes, potato chips, and cheese puffs does not make for a balanced diet.

The carts also keep track of nutrition information, production and environmental data, presumably for those customers who are too busy to actually read the labels.

The carts really shine when they are placed in the hands of the most inept shoppers.

They are ideally suited for customers prone to daydreaming and those who get lost easily.

The carts keep track of where one is in the store, and issue helpful advice, such as, “You are now in the dairy department. You might want to pick up a gallon of milk and some eggs.”

For those customers who aren’t worried about privacy and data security, the carts allow one to swipe his customer loyalty card. The cart will then pull up your shopping history and guide you through the store.

If you are a fan of chocolicious cookies, the cart might say, “the last time you were here you bought some chocolicious cookies. You may want to pick up a box now, while you are in the cookie department. In fact, you should probably pick up two, because they are on sale this week.”

For the totally helpless customer who not only doesn’t know what he needs, where to find it, or what he is going to do with it when he gets it home, the carts can save the day.

Just punch up a recipe from the database using the touch screen, and the cart will tell you what you need to make it, and will even allow you to e-mail the recipe to your home computer.

Promoters say the carts offer convenience and allow users to get through the store more quickly (because that, of course, is the goal of every store manager. They hate it when we hang around and make impulse purchases).

For those of us who still shop with our eyes open, and have the ability to read, perform mathematical calculations, and write a shopping list, it is difficult to see any advantage to these carts.

Our laziness and our dependence on technology for even the simplest things puts us all at risk.

We needn’t worry about nuclear weapons. All a savvy terrorist would have to do is knock out our electrical supply or hack into our shopping computers, and we would all starve to death before we remembered how to find our own food.