Grocer X: Smart shopping carts are useless

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It’s not often that a — for lack of better phrasing — "exciting" new piece of customer service technology hits the grocery industry. Self-checkout machines were supposed to revolutionize the shopping experience; they’re here to stay but Lord knows if customers will ever figure how to use them. Store savings apps were kind of cool for a second but they’re not that great, and don’t act like Apple Pay will ever be a thing. So of course I’m more than a little skeptical about the future of the Point-of-Sale grocery cart.

A team of Michigan State University engineering students introduced the Point-of-Sale shopping cart on Friday at the school’s College of Engineering’s Design Day. Here’s more on the cart from MSUToday.edu:

“This new system allows the buyer to scan a product on his or her smartphone before placing it into the cart. When the shopping is completed, the consumer can then use a smartphone to pay… The system is equipped with a feature that confirms that the product scanned is the one placed in the cart. There is also an alarm system that lets the store know if a buyer is leaving the premises with an unscanned item.”

I don’t mean to take anything away from these students’ knowledge, ingenuity and apparent passion for engineering and design, but I can’t help but to call the Point-of-Sale shopping cart a ridiculous idea.

First, shopping carts are one of the most abused commodities in any given store. I don’t have a clue how much a smart cart may be worth but I can’t imagine it’ll be cheap. We’ll never be able to keep shoppers from taking carts out of the confines of the store — we can’t even convince them to put them in the cart corrals — and we’ll never be able to convince teenage cart-pushers that this new cart is worth any more or their time. A store will have to go all or nothing if they’re going for a smart cart upgrade. When given multiple options, customers don’t treat a basket any better than the other — just ask the motorized handicap baskets moonlighting as low-speed go-carts for the kids. Even if a store went all in on smart carts, I doubt that behavior would change.

Second, store inventory is flawed. Never have I worked in a store in which every single item is labeled, priced and inventoried properly. Screenhawks, or customers who never take their eyes off the screen at the checkout line, are whom they are because they know items ring up incorrectly or come up missing from the system on a regular basis.

“What do you mean it’s not in the system, I just took it off the shelf?!” they ask, seriously. Waiting on an answer, smart cart…

The third major reason why the POS shopping cart (pun intended) won’t work is simply because the customers won’t get it. Really. They haven’t even won the brain battle with self-checkout machines yet and now you’re throwing a smart cart curveball at ‘em? Some customers will embrace the new technology but only a few of them may actually be able to use it. Most won’t really care to put any effort into it — at the end of the day it’s just a shopping cart.

But adding the smartphone component is the death nail. As prevalent as the phones are, not all of our customers are über-smartphone-savy. (I wouldn’t be finding paper lists and crumpled coupons on the floor everyday if they were.) This is especially true for our ever-faithful geriatric shoppers.

I can see it now, Grandma Gert nestling her cane in the basket of the smart cart and having a Siri-like voice demand her username and password every time she tries to scan a pack of steamed beets with her Nokia flip phone. What could go wrong?

The man behind the apron is Craig Lemley, digital content coordinator here at the Indy. The Colorado Springs native spent nearly a decade working in grocery stores across the Pikes Peak region before retiring his produce knife for a surprisingly less-stressful media career. Follow him on twitter (@_CraigLemley) or send questions/comments to clemley@csindy.com.

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