CINCINNATI — Imagine a trip to Kroger where your grocery list tells you where the nearest item is — and sends you an alert if you accidentally pass it by on the shelf.
Next, you need a small item like a spice, and just as you approach the crowded rack the shelf lights up right under the whole (not ground) coriander you’re seeking.
Finally, you need gluten-free pasta, and just as you approach the shelf with all the pastas, it highlights all the choices that meet your dietary needs.
What you’ve just imagined is not that far off.
Kroger is deep into experimenting with “smart shelf” technology at a Cincinnati-area store. Company officials are ramping up the project and plan to test several additional applications.
“It’s not a question of if; it’s a question of when,” said Christopher Hjelm, Kroger’s chief information officer.
Right now, the shelves are programmed to display video images of outsize price tags that can be altered with a few key strokes at a computer. But Kroger says they are eyeing other future capabilities.
Kroger’s test is expanding from a few shelves to most of its Cold Spring, Ky., store. The company is completing the installation of 2,200 Edge shelves throughout the center of the supermarket, including most aisles with dry goods.
Kroger officials won’t discuss the cost of the technology, which was developed in-house. They also won’t disclose how they plan to expand it to other stores.
But future applications could include providing on-demand nutritional info when shoppers touch the shelf below an item. Kroger officials can easily see a day when the shelves can talk to shoppers’ smartphones.
“It has the potential to reinvent brick-and-mortar retailing,” said Brett Bonner, the vice president of Kroger’s research and development. “It brings the info-richness of the Internet to the sight, sounds, smells and touching of in-store shopping.”
So far, the digital tags are freeing up time for store clerks to pay more attention to customers. With tens of thousands of individual food items, a typical Kroger store takes more than two weeks to completely re-price by hand with new tags.
Customers at the Cold Spring store, 10 miles southeast of Cincinnati, are beginning to see clearer and bolder pricing of items on shelves.
“I’ve noticed them transitioning to this. I like it, the prices are more noticeable,” said Amy Siry, 46, of Alexandria, Ky., who is not quite sure how the electronic tags differ from the traditional paper stickers. “The numbers are bigger and brighter.”
The numbers stand out more than before because they’re larger in size and the digital price tags don’t have UPC bar codes on them. Store associates can change the tags to display only the bar codes using hand-held devices, like flipping the channel on a 2-inch TV screen.
The lip of each shelf is fronted with a plastic screen. Inside the shelf, a small digital device projects the pricing or product info. There is no glass that can break, no chemicals that can leak and minimal heat.