At The Supermarket

(Part of The Future: A Retrospective)


The Electronic Supermarket

The Electronic Supermarket
Odds 100%
Year 1991
Cost N/A

This is a grand suite of changes that will sweep supermarkets, just like in Supermarket Sweep, to bring you The Supermarket Of The Future! What can it do? Practically everything!

When you pull your cart up to the tuna fish, instead of paper tags showing the shelf prices, you'll find an easy-to-read LCD screen displaying not only the price per can but the unit price, so that you can compare product value ounce for ounce... it can print messages such as ON SALE, BEST VALUE, LOW CALORIE, or DOUBLE COUPONS... connected to the manager's main computer via low-power radio... Prices can be changed on one product or on all products just by keying in some numbers.

It's madness! Future madness! (contemporaneous New Scientist article.) It might work if there was only one brand of tuna fish, but the solution adopted by real supermarkets was to put the unit price on those paper tags. But don't despair, Telepanel Inc. of Markham, Ontario, now owned by ("part of") NRT Technology Corporation. There's a huge market for LCD screens in supermaket aisles! It's just that those LCD screens serve no useful purpose, and are used as space for animated advertisements. Sure, you can't change the price on a whim, but that's all controlled at the front office anway.


Supermarket Self-Checkout

Supermarket Self-Checkout
Odds 100%
Year 1995
Cost N/A

"What automatic teller machines did for banks, self-checkout machines will do for supermarkets." Except automatic teller machines have a simple, uniform interface that doesn't require the user to precisely move objects through three-space. I've never had a good experience with self-checkout machines. The problems seem to stem from the fact that, unlike a supermarket employee, you can't be trusted not to bag an item without scanning it. This leads to draconian restrictions on what you can do with items and bags. You have the regimentated behavior of a supermarket employee without the benefit of training or repetition. It all goes to hell and you have to get someone to help you, defeating the entire point of self-checkout. That's my experience, anyway. Maybe this just marks the point at which new technology outstrips my ability to use it.

The company profiled in Future Stuff is CheckRobot, a company with a non-generic name which in 1991 merged with super-generic Uniquest. Today's Uniquest is definitely the company that bought CheckRobot but it now appears to be a job placement company.

David R. Humble, inventor of the self-checkout machine and holder of patents like #5494136, was later the founder of eDiets.com, the portal for those who want to schism from the Catholic Church. It had an IPO but has since been delisted.


Electronic Promotions

Electronic Promotions
Odds 100%
Year 1995
Cost N/A

Man, I keep getting spam from Electronic Promotions. Oh, it's electronic promotions in the generic. CheckRobot, not satisfied with inventing supermarket self-checkout and getting bought by a job placement company, has created the Vision 1000 System for monetizing the checkout activity itself.

"If your store has this system, the 20-cent refund you saw posted in the aisle... will be automatically credited to your bill." This seems pretty commonplace today, to the point that I'm surprised things used to work differently. We call it a "sale". But in smaller stores today the cashier has to remember what's on sale this week; maybe it used to work like that everywhere.

"If your grocery order contains baking items such as flour and sugar, the Vision 1000 system will print out a receipt [sic?] for oatmeal raisin cookies, along with a coupon for a particular brand of raisins." Great, then you can go through the whole shopping process again! Lots of supermarkets today have a similar system, printing out coupons for more or some variant of what you've already bought. Basically everything in this entry came true, but none of it made anybody happier, except the cashier who doesn't have to remember the promotions anymore.

Oh, the part that didn't come true is the "mystery product" of the day, which if you buy it you win "a bottle of store-brand soda or some other item." Other item! Take the other item!

Generic name company watch: the company promoting CheckRobot's Vision 1000 product is called Advanced Promotion Technologies. "Vision 1000" is now itself the name of 1000 different products, services, and initiatives.


Grocery Smart Card

Grocery Smart Card
Odds 90%
Year 1994
Cost N/A

"Smart cards for the grocery store might be as popular in the future as automatic teller machines." It's another Advanced Promotion Technologies joint. Cards like the ones described in this entry are very common today, but I wouldn't say they're particularly popular. People put up with them as a way of getting discounts, but cashiers usually have a couple dummy cards they'll use on you if you don't have one. So to a shopper they're about as useful as... if they didn't exist.

Like the phone cards, they're also not smart. They're just a key into a database. That's all you need to bring the Future Stuff predictions into focus: "Customers will accumulate points for coming back to the same supermarket chain, just like they do when they fly often with a particular airline. Once a Smart Card shows a certain number of points, its owner will be entitled to a bonus... Would a trip to Disneyland be out of the question?" My sources say yes.

"All information will be stored on the card as if it were a disk for a computer." Or even better--store it on a real disk for a computer, far away from the actual store. Future Stuff had a tragic faith in the ability of people to keep their data under their control.


Safer Tamper-Proof Packaging

Safer Tamper-Proof Packaging
Odds 50%
Year 1999
Cost N/A

This is a particular tamper-proofing idea developed by Kim Krumhar of Frito-Lay. It's described in Patent #5096813. It's an indicator that changes color in the presence of oxygen. "The sensor, at present, changes from blue to pumpkin orange... What he wants is a more dramatic and meaningful color change--such as from green to bright red."

It looks like Kim Krumhar went to work for Herbalife instead of developing that Willy Wonka-esque sensor. I vaguely remember seeing something like this, but I can't give any details and I might just be remembering earlier times I read this Future Stuff entry.

Tamper-proof packaging got a lot less safe in the 90s, as every manner of durable good was vacuum-packed into boil-in-the-bag bags so difficult and dangerous to open with conventional scissors, laser, etc. that special cutting tools are now available to open them. Unfortunately those cutting tools are themselves vacuum-packed into boil-in-the-bag bags, so nobody has any idea whether or not they work.


The Self-Cooling Can

The Self-Cooling Can
Odds 95%
Year 1991
Cost $0.10 cents/1989 (basically the same/2007)

"For an extra dime, picnic lovers, warm-soda haters, and people with packed refrigerators will be able to buy drinks in self-cooling cans." Damn you, warm soda! I'll hunt you to the ends of the earth!

Israel Siegel is hailed as the inventor of the self-cooling can design that's still in development today by Tempratech--just in time for Patent #4736599 to have expired. A soda can is surrounded by water in a partial vacuum, and a dessicant. Activate the can somehow and--I think this is what happens--the temperature of the soda heats the water, whose boiling point has been lowered by the partial vacuum. The dessicant acts as a heat sink, absorbing the water vapor. The soda becomes cold. That's kind of handwavy but it's something like that.

I can think of many fun failure modes for a soda can inside a vacuum chamber. But the most obvious problem here is that this apparatus changes the shape of the can. This used to be a huge problem when all cans were the same shape, because there was a lot of infrastructure (vending machines, etc.) that had the can-shape assumption built in. But with the success of Red Bull, there's another possible can shape, and Tempratech's can takes it. Apparently invented by guys who looked at molecules real hard through microscopes.


Resealable Can

Resealable Can
Odds 50%
Year 1991
Cost N/A

"'It's back to the drawing board,' says Lee Gunton, marketing director for Reynolds Can." I like to imagine Lee Gunton saying that at the slightest provocation. In this case he's complaining that soft drink companies didn't like his original design for a resealable can "with a plastic plug over the top". It was too much like a design for plastic soda bottles whose caps exploded under high heat and hit someone in the eye--and then that person sued the soda company!

All of Gunton's mad scheming came to naught, because I guess the soda companies fixed the caps on plastic bottles, or it stopped being possible to sue the soda company when the bottle busted a cap in your eye. The niche that was rightfully the resealable can's now belongs to plastic bottles with screw-top caps.


Fresh-Fruit Wrap

Fresh-Fruit Wrap
Odds 100%
Year 1991
Cost N/A

"Imagine, non-bruised, firm, fresh apples... available any time of year in any part of the world." Researchers at Cornell have devised a "heavy-duty plastic tray" that controls gas exchange between the fruit encased therein. I'm pretty sure it didn't catch on. Instead, we get lame fruit that's picked before it's ripe so that it's the right color when it makes it to the store. I've seen fruit sold in plastic trays, though--maybe it's special gas-regulating plastic.

Syed S. H. Rizvi, quoted in Future Stuff, is still practicing mad food science at Cornell.


Computerized Meal Planning

Computerized Meal Planning
Odds 100%
Year 1991
Cost Free-$30/1989 ($50/2007) for a family of six

Computerized Meal Planning Systems, Inc. of Kansas has the computerized meal planning for you! If your supermarket has purchased their meal-planning system, you simply insert your personal card into a slot, and the system prints out a week's worth of nutritious meals for your family, and a shopping list. This exists pretty much as described, mostly as subscription services. Except instead of putting a computer in the supermarket, they use your home computer, and the subscription services aren't as customizable ("'Most people eliminate Brussels sprouts right off the bat.'" Incidentally, Brussels sprouts are very good sauteed in butter with maybe a little bacon.)

Unlike most Future Stuff entries the high-tech stuff here isn't really important. There's no reason they couldn't have done this in the 1950s, mailing the shopping lists to your house. Except back then everyone ate nothing but steak and iceberg lettuce and cream of mushroom soup, so meal planning was pretty easy.

After Computerized Meal Planning Systems, Inc., Future Stuff quotee Roland Morreale ran an ISP called Contemporary Resources, LLC, but it's now out of business. He also wrote this poem.


This document (source) is part of Crummy, the webspace of Leonard Richardson (contact information). It was last modified on Monday, March 31 2008, 00:26:30 Nowhere Standard Time and last built on Wednesday, April 16 2014, 10:00:08 Nowhere Standard Time.

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