Let the Good Times Roll

I’m a real sucker for grocery store technology. Not for me the latest gee-whiz mobile phones or navigation systems; I want devices that can minimize the time I spend in Trader Joe’s choosing the most perfectly ripe bananas as my toddler screams lustily in the shopping cart. That’s why I got all hot and bothered reading about MediaCart, a supermarket cart that aids shoppers in finding products in the store. MediaCart even lets you scan and pay for your purchases without any need to wait in the checkout line or, God forbid, speak to any humans.

Starting in the second half of 2008, the companies plan to test MediaCart in Wakefern Food Corp.’s ShopRite supermarkets on the East Coast. Customers with a ShopRite loyalty card will be able to log into a Web site at home and type in their grocery lists; when they get to the store and swipe their card on the MediaCart console, the list will appear. As shoppers scan their items and place them in their cart, the console gives a running price tally and checks items off the shopping list.

The system also uses radio-frequency identification to sense where the shopper’s cart is in the store. The RFID data can help ShopRite and food makers understand shopping patterns, and the technology can also be used to send certain advertisements to people at certain points–an ad for 50 cents off Oreos, for example, when a shopper enters the cookie aisle. Microsoft said it is still working on how it will present commercials and coupons.

OK, I could do without the cookie ad. But a machine that organized my shopping, so that I’m not zigzagging back and forth across the store to get apples and bread—whoops, I forgot the onions, back to the produce section—that’s a machine that could really do me a solid. MediaCart is of course looking to feed purchase information back to advertisers, in the name of more finely targeting advertising to each consumer. But I’ll still take what I can get.

Salon’s Andrew Leonard, in his column How the World Works, envisions even cooler future MediaCart innovations, writing that “despite my qualms about the transformation of our entire built environment into one endless advertorial,” he would enjoy being able to point his cart at a row of products and bark out demands: “Computer! What were the average wages paid to the migrant workers who picked these kiwis? And get me the carbon footprint on those Pepperidge Farm Flavor Blasted Extra Cheddar Goldfish, stat!” In fact, Leonard advocates for what he calls the Total Labeling Information Universe:

I want to wave my cellphone at a shirt hanging on the rack at H&M or a DVD player on the shelf at Best Buy or a carton of strawberries at the Berkeley Bowl, and have the RFID chip tell me everything I want to know about that product.

I mean everything. Not just all of its ingredients and every possible kind of health-related danger its consumption might pose. I also want a breakdown of the transnational production system that produced it, down to which semiconductor came from which province of which country. I want to know how much of it was produced in an environmentally sustainable manner. I want to know the wages and benefits and union status of the workers who built it or the farm laborers who picked it. I want the full scoop.

And I want even more. If something is labeled ‘organic’ or ‘recycled’ or ‘fair trade’—I want to know what organization came up with the label, and how big of a role special interests played in defining it. There’s a great Web site, SourceWatch, that I go to frequently to get a left-wing critical analysis of what the biases, ideology and funding of a particular so-called nonpartisan think tank might be. I want access, via that RFID chip, to dueling liberal and conservative source-watches that battle it out over the validity of every label out there.

“If I can get that kind of information from my grocery cart,” he writes, “I’ll be happy to watch an ad for Krispy Kreme donuts.”

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