In the future, 'smart' store shelves that sense your impulses

Snack food revenues are driven by impulse buying. New, sensor-laden store shelves promise to take advantage.

Photo courtesy Cadbury

The maker of Cadbury chocolate, Oreo cookies and Trident gum is developing "smart" store shelves that use sensor technology to personalize, and therefore encourage, the pleasure-seeking impulse purchases that drive sales of those products.

The company in question? Mondelēz International, parent company of a number of grocery store fixtures, from Mikado biscuit sticks to triangular Toblerone chocolate. The project? Sensor-laden display units located by checkout counters.

The "smart" shelves will use technology based on Microsoft's gesture-based Kinect for Windows to be able to "identify the age and sex of the would-be snacker," reports the Wall Street Journal's Clint Boulton, then use "analytics to determine what type of guilty pleasure best appeals." A video display will deliver personalized (relatively speaking, that is) advertisements.

The shelves are a novel response to a time when the average consumer, under economic duress, is more often resisting his or her impulses at checkout. If technology can help the company's products resonate better with shoppers, they'll be more likely to give in to the (sweet, salty, savory) impulses they already have.

Sensors are not new to the retail environment; any business traveler who has tried to pocket a miniature bottle of gin from their hotel room, in the style of Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, knows that the minibar is aware of the switch.

But what if those sensors could be used offensively, instead of defensively, to drive revenue? That's the idea behind the trillion-dollar "Internet of Things" concept, in which inanimate objects from cars to refrigerators are wired up and delivering data in real time.

For Mondelēz, that means an ability to determine if a potential customer is young and male (try some Chips Ahoy) or not (perhaps some Wheat Thins?), then play a video targeted to that demographic. If the customer engages—perhaps he picks up a pouch, but can't decide whether to give in—the shelf knows this, and can display a coupon offer for the product in question to help close the deal.

On the back end, an aggregation of this data collected worldwide would help clue Mondelēz in on purchasing habits at a far more granular level, informing placement, promotions and other tactics.

The technology will arrive on store shelves (so to speak) in 2015.