Saturday, January 19, 2008

The media cart...making shoppers obsolete

I can't decide if this is a genius invention, a natural evolution, or just the friggin stupidest waste of consumers' time and money to come around.

The invention is the Media Cart system. Take the love child of your average supermarket shopping cart and Robocop, and here's what you get. The cart has a video screen on it along with a user interface and keypad that provides a whole host of benefits (to whom I'm not sure). Among other things, the unit is outfitted with RFID, allowing it to be aware of its own location as you maneuver it through the store. Thus, when you pass the gefilte fish, and there happens to be a sale on gefilte fish, your shopping cart can now tell you, "Hey! There's a sale on gefilte fish. Reach down and to your left, and grab a couple of bottles whydontacha!"

The cart runs on lithium ion batteries. When it is "docked" in a line with the other carts in the store waiting to be used, it charges itself. It is wirelessly internet enabled, so when you begin shopping you can scan your rewards card and it will provide you more personalized options, including automatic downloading of your shopping lists from the store's website. This feature I see as a particular annoyance for me personally, as I foresee being sent to the store by my lovely wife for milk and bread, only to be buggered by instant announcements on the screen saying things like, "the lovely wife wants you to get cereal as well. And juice. And fruit. Oh, and dinner for tonight. And pick up the dry cleaning."

According to this article, the units will begin their lives in a test run at Shop Rite stores in Connecticut soon. I was born and raised in a Shop Rite in Connecticut. My mom taught me to be frugal (and by that I mean a cheap bastard), and she would often take me to Shop Rite with her to demonstrate her prowess in coupon-driven cost-saving. I was always amazed that no matter what store we were in, be it the Shop-Rite, the Food Mart, or the Stop & Shop, she always knew the exact prices of things at all stores. Let me give you an example. I'd come across a box of Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs, toss them in the cart and say, "mommy, we need these." She would take them out and calmly reply, "okay, but they're cheaper at the Other Store." I'd put them back on the shelf, expecting that my Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs would soon be obtained from the Other Store for a price so low that it would make sense to stock up for the millennium.

To this day I have never been to the Other Store. In fact I'm starting to think that maybe, just maybe, she was trying to avoid buying those Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs. But I would think it would be a nice enhancement if the cart could tell you the prices at the Other Store. Maybe finally I'd be able to get my Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs

I'm trying to picture a future where my mom goes to Shop Rite and proceeds to use one of these newfangled cartons. I have a number of concerns.

For one, how well do you think those screens will hold up to folks (like me) who enjoy giving their cart the heave-ho into the cart corral in the parking lot? and, when it's four degrees outside, how well are those batteries going to stay charged while the await retrieval by some minimum wage slacker?

Will anyone over the age of 70 be able to handle one of these things without accidentally hitting the accelerator instead of the brake and driving it through the fresh fish counter?

While on the one hand I like the fact that you can ask the cart to tell you what aisle the Cheez-Its are, I wonder if the tracking will wig out and think it’s broken when my mom spends a half hour standing in one place, behind the fish counter, swapping stories of the grandkids with the mom of one of my friends from high school.

I also wonder if there is a button mom can push that gives her a direct interface to the store manager, to whom she can bitch about the fact that they don’t carry kosher turkeys. One of my mother's favorite things to do at Shop Rite is bitch to the manager about kosher turkeys...don't take that easy access away from her. That's why she refuses to use the self-checkout aisle.

But most importantly, I have to wonder if anyone's going to give a crap about these things. In an age where your digital camera will be obsolete by the time you're done figuring out how to synchronize it with your GPS system, do we really need another gadget that sucks up energy, makes our food more expensive, and annoys the crap out of people who just want to buy a friggin box of Triscuts without being bothered?

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