The Store of the

By Deborah Gage Print this article Print

Herb Sorensen and Paco Underhill have spent their careers studying the way we shop. What do they know that retailers don't?

The Store of the Future

IBM is experimenting with several new technologies in a store-of-the-future laboratory in Raleigh, N.C. Sensors in the ceiling follow the infrared radiation people emit as they move. Systems behind the sensors can distinguish between individuals and families, to differentiate group behavior. On the floor itself, sensors that recognize faces, combined with voice recognition and authentication software, allow researchers to point to a vending machine, speak an order, and pay with a wireless phone, using Bluetooth technology.

Even though consumers may not know all the ways their behavior is being monitored, the idea is to make shopping easier.

"The way people live is changing," says Daniel Hopping, a consulting marketing manager for IBM. "Time is more important now than anything else, so in actuality the consumer is changing faster than the retailer can change his system."

Soon every object and piece of clothing will have a paper-thin wireless chip embedded in it, a step beyond the antenna tags that Prada now affixes to the goods it sells in its Epicenter store. That's according to Stephen Bjorgan, vice president of technology development at France Telecom R&D in South San Francisco. This will help not just keep track of customer preferences, but also help retailers with security and post-sale service.

Back at the Troutdale Thriftway, sensors attached to the bottoms of grocery carts feed signals to antenna scattered around the store. With customized software, these determine the carts' locations within five feet. The positions are sent back to a database, where PathTracker can plot customers' paths on a map of the store's floor. Then, it can attach data scanned at checkout to determine which products were purchased by which carts on which paths. PathTracker also can determine the time and distance of a shopping trip, and the amount of time a cart spends in a particular spot.

All this lets a researcher like Sorensen figure out a product's "eye-share." By assuming that a customer looks in the direction of his cart and knowing the location of individual products, PathTracker can even calculate the angle at which a customer appears to see and become attracted to a product.

To make shopping more considerate, a "congestion matrix" relates the number of carts at a given place to the time spent buying a product. That leads to insights such as: Baby food should be located in an area with little traffic so parents can linger comfortably over the many little jars bought for their newborn. Underhill

Sorensen's work is inspired by Paco Underhill, an environmental psychologist in New York who observes customers around the world. Underhill is at the forefront of creating a science around what causes individuals to desire—or reject—a product on store shelves.

His company, Envirosell, hires trained researchers who spend days with pencil, paper and video cameras making meticulous observations of how customers spend time in stores. His 1999 book—Why We Buy, The Science of Shopping (Simon and Schuster, 1999)—has been through 15 international editions, based on observations such as the "butt-brush effect." Here, stores can boost sales by making sure products aimed at female shoppers can be examined at leisure, without the risk of being touched on the backside by passersby.

Sandy Swan, director of marketing for Dr. Pepper and 7-Up, finds research by Sorensen and Underhill invaluable, although he can't quantify results.

He now understands that he can boost sales for Thriftway if non-cola drinks are displayed alongside Coke and Pepsi products, rather than away from them. That's because Dr. Pepper is more of an impulse purchase.

"It's just one more bullet in our gun to be able to maintain shelf space," he says.

This article was originally published on 2002-12-01
Senior Writer
Based in Silicon Valley, Debbie was a founding member of Ziff Davis Media's Sm@rt Partner, where she developed investigative projects and wrote a column on start-ups. She has covered the high-tech industry since 1994 and has also worked for Minnesota Public Radio, covering state politics. She has written freelance op-ed pieces on public education for the San Jose Mercury News, and has also won several national awards for her work co-producing a documentary. She has a B.A. from Minnesota State University.

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