While supermarket trolleys often seem to have minds of their own, one day it appears they actually will. The ‘intelligent’ trolley was one innovation being showcased at the recent Institute of Grocery Distribution’s annual conference last week. Annette Farr was there to hear about that and other technological advances in the pipeline.

Some crystal-ball gazing was seen at the Institute of Grocery Distribution’s annual conference held last week. Addressing the future of retailing, one particular innovation in the pipeline was unveiled – the ‘intelligent’ trolley.

The trolley is fitted with a bar code scanner and computer screen. Once the food item is scanned, the screen offers a host of information including its nutritional content, country of origin and environmental credentials, the idea being that shoppers will henceforth be able to make an informed purchasing decision.

EDS, the American company behind this technology, is confident that the innovation will play an important part in not only fighting obesity but also in improving waste packaging issues. It believes that reading a screen is easier than reading a label and that a red-light alert might prevent shoppers from buying food and drink items high in fat, sugar and salt.

At the same time, Datamonitor has published its latest report – ‘Shop X: where’s the store heading?’ – which examines a number of new technologies designed to attract the online consumer back into shops. Amongst these so-called ‘enhanced shopping experiences’ are digital signage and near-field communication.

The former can be used for simple on-shelf labelling or as a sophisticated advertising medium. Digital signage screens can determine the sex and approximate age range of viewers. In the future, these screens will be able to log when people point at a particular product on the shelf and then stream adverts relating to it to the nearest screens. In addition, proximity sensors will be able to determine when someone is nearby at which point the sound increases, decreasing as the shopper moves on.

“Given the average person is targeted with approximately 3,000 commercials per day, retailers are seeking to differentiate products by means of a more engaging medium than static signposting and traditional TV, which digital signage offers retailers a means of doing,” explains Alex Kwiatkowski, lead analyst at Datamonitor’s Vertical Market Technology arm.

Near field communication is another application of radio frequency identification (RFID) technology. Using the mobile phone, shoppers will be able pay their bill without the need for a signature or PIN, making queues at the checkout a thing of the past.

Kwiatkowski says: “Major retailers who do not implement the technology face being left behind as customers demand even faster transaction, a trend exacerbated by the ease and speed of online retailing.”

And mobile phones can also be used by retailers to send messages to shoppers in the hope of establishing a personal rapport with individuals.

Meanwhile, in the US the world’s largest retailer Wal-Mart’s Packaging Scorecard could become an industry standard. The scorecard requires all suppliers of packaged goods to Wal-Mart to submit data concerning their packaging and environment credentials.

The scorecard covers nine criteria including greenhouse gas emissions, evaluation of the packaging material type, transport distances, product packaging ratios, cube utilisation, recycled material content, methods of waste recovery, the type of energy used and any special energy saving initiatives in the manufacturing process.

All very worthy, but concerns have been raised by The European Organisation for Packaging and the Environment (Europen) that this initiative might stifle progress. “We should all avoid the risk of the Wal-Mart Packaging Scorecard becoming a de facto industry standard,” says Julian Carroll, managing director of Europen. “Not only could such an eventuality disrupt the market but, even worse, it risks evolving in such a way as to become an inhibitor of innovation rather than a stimulator. Just getting a high score for your packaging with Wal-Mart should not be a reason to rest on your laurels.”

According to IGD’s Global Retail Outlook Survey, environmental credentials along with health and wellness and convenience are the key issues forecast to affect consumer buying decisions. IGD analyst Michael Freedman has also written that purchases that contribute to heart and health and anti-ageing are highly important to shoppers aged over 65, the same demographic that has been identified as having the most spending power.

Over 1bn people will be over the age of 65 by 2030, which presents a multi-billion pound opportunity for food and grocery companies. Freedman says: “Sixty-somethings have a high acceptance of technology, long-standing exposure to marketing and serious purchasing power, so they will form perhaps the most important consumer segment of the future.”

Yet intelligent trolley developer EDS’s own research has shown the over-65s are resistant to such innovation perceived as time consuming and complicated to use.

A conundrum. Any mechanism that speeds up the check out process has to be welcomed, but how many of the over 60s will be enthused by a stream of text messages from their retailer, or indeed screen advertising directed at them, not to mention the information overload from an intelligent trolley when they would have already read the label. Too much high-tech and there is a real risk of alienating a powerful shopping group.