FOODELECTRIC

What in the world is a "Foodelectric"?That whimsical question was posed to me the other day by James R. Pawlik, a consultant in logistics and distribution from Arlington Heights, Ill.He sent me pages from a book published in 1954 that referred to Foodelectric. The book is titled "TNT: The Power Within You" and is in the "power of positive thinking" genre; that is, it's larded with anecdotes about

What in the world is a "Foodelectric"?

That whimsical question was posed to me the other day by James R. Pawlik, a consultant in logistics and distribution from Arlington Heights, Ill.

He sent me pages from a book published in 1954 that referred to Foodelectric. The book is titled "TNT: The Power Within You" and is in the "power of positive thinking" genre; that is, it's larded with anecdotes about how you should never stop trying because your next money-making idea may be just around some new corner of your brain.

The text broached the concept of a Foodelectric store by way of reference to a new "million-dollar idea" that was gestating in the brain of Clarence Saunders, eccentric founder of the Piggly Wiggly supermarket chain. (Actually, the information must have been some months old by the time it was published in 1954, since Saunders died in 1953. He was described in the book as being 67 years old.) Here's how the store was to work, according to the book: "The store operates so automatically that the customer can collect her groceries herself, wrap them and act as her own cashier. It eliminates the checkout crush, cuts overhead expenses and enables a small staff to handle a tremendous volume." Saunders is later quoted as saying that at such a store, "I can handle a $2 million volume with only eight employees." Recall that those would be early 1950s dollars. This sounds like pretty good stuff, doesn't it? Unfortunately, the book leaves us hanging because it offered no clue about whether such a store ever went into operation, or what might have been its fate if it did. But I thought it might be worth taking a look to see if there might be something in the Foodelectric idea that present-day technology could revivify.

Whereupon I called Ed Matthews, the Piggly Wiggly maven, newsletter essayist and longtime convention organizer, now also consulting from Atlantic Beach, Fla.

I thought he would have heard of Foodelectric if anyone had. Well, he hadn't, but he took us into even deeper waters. He was familiar with an implausible concept that he thought must be a successor idea to Foodelectric, namely a store called "Kedoozle" or, variously, "Keedoozle." The name was derived from the phrase "key does all." We'll get to the key in a moment.

Despite the unlikely name, it seems a Kedoozle store actually was opened and operated in Memphis, Tenn., for a short time. Here's how it worked, Ed told me: The store was like a giant automat in that each stockkeeping unit was displayed behind its own glass window. Upon entering the store, each shopper was issued a special key. Shoppers walked the store, selecting products by inserting the key into a slot near each product-display window. That action triggered the discharge of selected items onto a backstage conveyor belt and, at the same time, recorded each purchase on the key itself.

At the end of the shopping tour, the shopper went to the checkout point where the key was read to produce a tally. Meanwhile, products assembled by the conveyor system were moving to the checkout where they were bagged. Ed said the store operated for just a few weeks because it had a couple of problems: "Saunders was afraid someone would steal his ideas, so he insisted upon designing and constructing the electronic equipment himself, and breakdowns were frequent. Also, the store was not adapted to handling perishables, which limited its attractiveness."

The idea of store as vending machine is a very weird one, of course, and one that couldn't work today no matter how much improved technology might be. That's because the number of SKUs offered in a supermarket has increased prodigiously, rendering the product-under-glass approach thoroughly obsolete; never mind the matter of perishables.

But the concept does embody perhaps the first experimentation with partial customer-actuated checkout operations, a notion that's likely to bear fruit in upcoming years.

Many retailers are tinkering with customer-driven scanning today, including the use of portable bar-code readers. It's not much of a stretch to envision a refinement: Customers could be issued a bar-code reader and go through a showroom area -- from which products

couldn't be removed -- recording purchase requests on the reader.

At the end of the shopping trip, the Universal Product Code reader could produce an invoice for payment and an order sheet from which backstage pickers could assemble selected products, perhaps for later delivery to customers' homes.

This system would eliminate one of the vexations of customer-driven scanning: its vulnerability to pilferage. Since no product could be removed from the showroom, no product could sprout legs. The showroom approach could also lay logistical groundwork for upcoming shop-by-computer services, but provide an intermediary step by permitting shoppers to still see, compare and handle products. Maybe no idea is too weird not to re-evaluate from time to time, even ideas dubbed "Foodelectric" or "Kedoozle."