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Keedoozle, Revisited

The amazing impact of digital technology on the retailing business may lead one to believe that nothing of great technological moment happened in retailing before, say, 1974 when bar codes were introduced. But as early as 1937 a technological sensation -- the Keedoozle -- was sprung upon the industry.

Keedoozle -- in case you were wondering -- was the world's first automated grocery store, the brainchild of Clarence Saunders, also known as the founder of Piggly Wiggly. In fact, Saunders' initial Piggly Wiggly, opened in Memphis in 1916, is considered the first self-service grocery store. But Saunders wanted to take self-service to an entirely different level so he came up with this truly futuristic venue in Memphis 21 year later.

Keedoozle -- short for "key does all" -- used a vending machine concept, displaying sample grocery products at vastly discounted prices behind small glass boxes. Shoppers were given a key with a ticker tape attached to it; they would insert the key into the keyhole in front of the product they wanted, and an electric signal would punch the tape accordingly. At the end of their trip they would give the tape to the cashier, who would insert it into a machine that would read it and electronically signal the stockroom clerks to collect the products and send them down a conveyor belt to the front end where they would be packed and ready to go.

All of this was explained today at the Food Marketing Institute's Energy & Store Development Conference by Ray Agah, vice president, engineering & construction for Save Mart Supermarkets, Modesto Calif., during a presentation on store formats.

Saunders tried the Keedoozle concept on three occasions -- in 1937, 1939 and 1948 -- and failed each time. But Saunders' main problem, Agah said, was that he was at least "50 years too early."

This year, the British retailer Tesco borrowed from Saunders' playbook with its QR-code subway store in South Korea. Tesco has embedded QR codes in photos of its shelves and pasted those photos onto subway walls. Customers use their smartphones to scan the codes of desired products, which are delivered to their homes. "If [Saunders] was living today with this technology, for sure he would be a very big success," Agah said.

Especially if he didn't name his store Keedoozle.

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