HP strolls down shopping aisle of the future

Fledgling system from HP Labs combines servers, printing and imaging technology to eliminate coupons and customize the buying experience.
Written by Erica Ogg, Contributor
PALO ALTO, Calif.--Despite the digitization of nearly everything in our daily lives, the Sunday circular ad for beef and bags of baby carrots has remained. Hewlett-Packard is developing a technology to bring even the banal task of grocery shopping into the Digital Age.

At HP Labs here, researchers are developing an in-store kiosk solution called Retail Store Assistant (RSA) that will make shopping for food, clothes and electronics easier for buyers and make selling things easier for retailers.

This is the same lab that invented inkjet printing technology and pocket-size scientific calculators, and it wouldn't seem in-store kiosks are at the forefront of technology, which HP admits. But it's the combination of several areas of HP's core businesses that's new.

"The technology is available," said Mohamed Dekhil, manager of imaging and printing retail applications at HP Labs. "It's a question of how you connect all this together."

Credit: Erica Ogg/CNET News.com
HP's Retail Store Assistant

The idea is this: Imagine walking into a grocery store, and instead of bringing your shopping list along, simply swiping a club card or entering a phone number. Any information you've entered online from home (milk, eggs, pretzels, ground beef, apples) will show up on your profile. There will also be special offers tailored to your shopping habits--your club card already keeps track of the fact that you prefer Diet Pepsi to Coke, and that you buy a carton of eggs every other week. The kiosk simply matches your information with retailers' offers to generate the appropriate coupons.

The RSA kiosk will then create a printed list of special discounts and shopping items. On the back will be a map of the store and the location of all items, eliminating the need to comb every aisle of a store. And instead of fumbling for coupon clippings, a single bar code on the printout will track the customized offers and remove items from the shopping list that were purchased.

If a printed piece of paper is too cumbersome, HP says the list and information could also be transferred via Bluetooth technology to a mobile device, like a phone.

While HP stressed that the intent of the technology is about making shopping "a delight" for customers, it's also a way for the company to sell more of what it's best at. The kiosk service combines HP database technology, servers, mobile products, printers and imaging technology.

The RSA kiosk could also be a boon for retailers and marketers. The kiosks can know by the time a shopper has left the store which discounts a buyer took advantage of. That information is gold for marketers looking for demographic data and ways to sell more accurately to individual buyers.

Though privacy advocates may balk at the idea of a retailer monitoring each shopper's purchases--indeed some already do decry the club card concept--HP says its customers will need to have privacy policies available to shoppers so they know what they're getting themselves into. Eventually the kiosks will let shoppers manage what personal data is kept, said Dekhil. For instance, shoppers can indicate that none of their alcohol or medicine purchases be tracked.

The technology isn't available yet, and likely won't be for some time, but HP says it is talking to major retailers, like supermarkets, electronics stores and discount chains about using the technology to make shopping an experience, one that eliminates the frustration of not being able to find a product or a helpful salesperson, and then build customer loyalty to that store. HP says it is currently "in talks" with major retailers to start pilot programs soon.

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