Shopping for groceries may soon resemble something more like what used to be portrayed in the futuristic cartoon character strips of old than what we think of today.
Like the wristwatch televisions or flying cars made famous in the world of science fiction, the ability to communicate images and information anywhere and at any time has long loomed in the collective imagination of consumers.
But with Internet-ready cell phones and personal digital assistants containing operating systems with browsers now starting to hit the market, the day of instant communication is close at hand, and supermarket chains, like all retailing classes of trade, are gearing up to take advantage of the new opportunities.
"We don't think it's going to be years before this technology is applicable," said Bob Drury, vice president of management information systems at Schnuck Markets, St. Louis. "We're talking months. The infrastructure is in place right now."
Drury said the scope of retail applications is massive. In-store kiosks that connect consumers to the Internet or to professionals who can offer advice would become a lot easier to install if they didn't need telephone wires. It is the implications of what consumers will be able to do with the cell phones and PDAs, however, that has retailers like Schnuck looking ahead to wireless retail access.
Schnuck, for example, already offers home delivery of groceries. New technologies, though, could eventually allow customers to place orders on the Internet via cell phones and have those orders delivered at home or ready for store pickup. Drury said it is a melding of the electronic and in-store experiences that has Schnuck Markets particularly excited about wireless potential.
Customers could, for example, place their deli or pharmacy orders and shop while those orders are being filled. When the orders are complete, the customer would be alerted via an e-mail message transmitted to a cell phone.
Scott DeGraeve, founder and president of Scotty's Home Market, Lake Zurich, Ill., an on-line grocer, said a project the company is currently testing could benefit greatly from wireless Internet access.
The company has issued approximately 200 handheld Palm Pilot PDAs fitted with scanners that customers can use to scan -- in their homes -- the bar codes of products that they want to reorder via the Internet. Currently, customers have to replace the device in a cradle for the information to be downloaded to the Internet. Wireless access would allow the information to be transmitted automatically without the manual downloading process.
In the United Kingdom, where the government is supporting efforts to become fully Internet-enabled for business, Safeway U.K, Hayes, England, is even further along.
Last year Safeway launched a first-of-its-kind program enabling customers to create grocery orders on Palm Pilot PDAs from wherever they are -- at home, on a train or during a break at work. Customers using the system select items from a customized list, based on their personal shopping history. They then can download the order on-line to the store at their convenience. The test, which began last year with just 200 customers, was recently expanded to 700 shoppers.
"The program has definitely been successful. We've learned an awful lot. Some customers take to this like a duck to water. They write testimonials about the system," said Jeremy Wyman, business solutions manager at Safeway U.K. For Safeway, though, the real growth promise hinges precisely on leveraging even greater opportunities afforded by widespread Internet access, the introduction of wireless application protocol phones to the marketplace this summer, and greater use of the detailed customer transaction data generated from the chain's shopper-loyalty program. Wyman said that as soon as WAP phones become commonplace -- and he predicts that will happen relatively quickly -- the ability to move forward aggressively with innovative programs such as remote shopping will expand very rapidly. WAP phones will provide users with the portability of a cellular phone but also include wireless Internet access and a small screen for on-line browsing.
The expectation is that anywhere from 200,000 to 500,000 Safeway customers might take part in the program once the phones become widely used, Wyman said.
The wireless application protocol, which sets standard protocols for how these devices will communicate with the Internet, has been developed by a consortium of leading software and wireless device manufacturers. In addition, large software makers are forming strategic partnerships with cell-phone manufacturers and service providers.
Third-party service providers are also cropping up to serve as translators of Hypertext Markup Language, the code used to build Web sites. Currently, wireless devices can only access Web pages that service providers have made accessible by translating them from HTML into Handheld Devices Markup Language coding. These providers will translate that coding automatically, making any Web site accessible by wireless devices.
At the same time that the technology is coming of age, consumers are becoming more comfortable with e-commerce, and are beginning to accept the melding of Internet and wireless communication. The technology is already being used in combination with global-positioning systems to deliver up-to-the-minute weather information to users based on their location. Some companies, like IQOrder.com, are working toward putting prices on mobile handheld devices so customers can price-compare while they are in stores. "Customers are carrying the Internet into the store with them," said Malcolm Maclachlan, analyst at International Data Corp., Framingham, Mass.
Applications for wireless communications in the supermarket include handheld scanners to total the bill and enable payment, on-line store directories and the ability to monitor video feeds from the store's children's play area. "The technology for wireless shopping is already here. The waiting is for retailers to integrate wireless technology into their outlets," said an industry observer.
"Grocery-store chains are constantly looking to increase efficiency," said Marc De Speville, an analyst with Fleming Securities, London. "Wireless payments may cut down on the time consumers spend in the store."
The financial services industry is ahead of retailing in delivering investment information and allowing customers to make trades via cell phones or PDAs. But the potential for wireless Internet access is massive in its scope. "We truly believe that handheld devices will open whole new possibilities for retail shopping," said Bob Covington, vice president and chief technology officer at Simon Property Group, Indianapolis, which owns 170 regional malls throughout the United States.
Simon has already begun testing an in-store system that allows consumers to use a handheld computer, provided at a kiosk in the mall, to scan items that they want to buy. The devices then transmit that information via an in-mall local area network to the kiosk. Customers can then return to the kiosk and pay for all their purchases at once and have items delivered.
Covington said he believes the technology's potential is virtually unlimited. He said, for example, that with the use of global positioning systems or similar devices, retailers located within a mall would be able to transmit information about product promotions or sales directly to a consumer's phone or PDA as the customer walks past a store.
In some areas of the country, restaurants have begun similar programs that call for transmitting menu and special price information to the cell phones of consumers in the area.
Sam Kapreilian, a partner and global e-commerce leader at consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, said these kinds of transactions have the strongest potential for retail consumers.
"This kind of thing is different than cuddling up in your pajamas with a cup of coffee on Sunday morning and shopping for clothes on the Internet," said Kapreilian, explaining that the graphics that are able to be delivered to a mini-browser contained in a cell phone or PDA are not yet rich enough to support on-line shopping well.
Consultant Vivek Tulja, a director with Chicago-based Arthur Andersen who specializes in wireless communication, agrees. "This is more of a purchasing tool than a shopping tool," he said. "The screens on these devices are small and the data transmission capacity is not very high."
While it may be harder to shop around, Tulja said, Internet access via cell phones or PDAs provides the "anywhere, anytime" purchase feature that consumers are increasingly demanding.