Brave new grocery shopping

2008: The year shopping carts came alive, thanks to Microsoft

By Andrew Leonard

Published January 15, 2008 10:37PM (EST)

I have seen the future of grocery shopping, and its name is MediaCart.

We so need this: A shopping cart that knows where everything is, courtesy of Microsoft.

The AP's Jessica Mintz reports that Microsoft is "bringing digital advertising to the shopping cart."

Customers with a ShopRite loyalty card will be able to log into a Web site at home and type in their grocery lists; when they get to the store and swipe their card on the MediaCart console, the list will appear. As shoppers scan their items and place them in their cart, the console gives a running price tally and checks items off the shopping list.

The system also uses radio-frequency identification to sense where the shopper's cart is in the store. The RFID data can help ShopRite and food makers understand shopping patterns, and the technology can also be used to send certain advertisements to people at certain points -- an ad for 50 cents off Oreos, for example, when a shopper enters the cookie aisle. Microsoft said it is still working on how it will present commercials and coupons.

Best of all, no need to wait in line for the cashier. Just run your card through the reader and off you go. If you're lucky you might completely avoid the necessity of dealing with any human being whatsoever!

RFID chips, a cardreader, video ads -- Microsoft's Scott Ferris says it is all about "making the shopping experience better for the consumer." This is, of course, a worthy goal, though at some grocery stores that I'm acquainted with, equipping the shopping carts with anti-tank missiles for blowing other shoppers out of the aisles would come in more handy than a digitized shopping list blasting a constant stream of commercials. But despite my qualms about the transformation of our entire built environment into one endless advertorial, I optimistically see room here for How the World Work's crazy dream for a Total Labeling Information Universe.

Computer! What were the average wages paid to the migrant workers who picked these kiwis? And get me the carbon footprint on those Pepperidge Farm Flavor Blasted Extra Cheddar Goldfish, stat!

If I can get that kind of information from my grocery cart, I'll be happy to watch an ad for Krispy Kreme donuts.

But living in Berkeley, as I do, I must contrast this brave new Total Recall vision of the "shopping experience" with a trip to the local farmer's market to pick up the weekly "farm box" -- a package of fresh produce that happens to be what is in season, that week. As in, you don't even need to come up with a shopping list, because you're just gonna get what they give you. Then you adjust your menu to fit.

I did this once. It was craaaaazy, in a radical, slow-food, surrender-your-shopping-autonomy, what-the-heck-do-you-do-with-turnips kind of way. It was like falling through a space-time warp into an alien dimension, a place where all the natives make the sign against the Evil Eye and shy away in abject horror from the terrifying specter of the.... Microsoft MediaCart. Worst of all, there is no cookie aisle.

I wonder -- is there a third way? A dreamscape where farmer's markets and artificially intelligent shopping carts coexist in loopy harmony? Perhaps the cart might offer some advice on what to do with the turnips? Or is the culture bifurcating beyond repair?

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Globalization How The World Works Microsoft