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Page last updated at 16:30 GMT, Friday, 19 December 2008

Store tech checks customers out

Mobile phone being used at Future Store
Mobile phone are being used to scan products at the Future Store
As lifestyles get busier, supermarkets are turning to all kinds of technologies to streamline food shopping.

At the Metro Group's Future Store in Germany shoppers become guinea pigs who try out new supermarket gadgets.

Some of the prototypes those lucky shoppers are testing include robot helpers and barcode-scanning phones.

Already deployed are the handheld video scanners that customers tote around.

"You can do it now," said Danny Bagge from IBM. "You can go into a number of grocers, you can pick up those terminals, scan, and do your own shopping."

"Equally, you can go into department stores where newer versions of these terminals are available and work beautifully on the existing store networks," he said.

IBM is also working on ways for mobile phones to be the scanners - something already deployed at the Future Store.

Tracking movement

Smart technology at the German superstore is helping to save time at the till by keeping track of a trolley.

System at the Future Store
The queue management system works with infra-red sensors

The system uses infra-red sensors to monitor the movement of shoppers and detect when new people join a checkout queue.

Ed Austin from Irisys said his company's queue management system worked by counting people coming into a store and getting ready to leave.

"It is able to predict how many checkouts are needed 15 and 30 minutes into the future," he said.

He explained the system detects a "shopping unit" by watching how people behave. How they move around determines whether they've joined the till queue or not.

When customers arrive at the till and start unloading and swaying, the system marks this as "queuing behaviour".

"If you have a family of three people at a till, you don't want to count three in a queue, you want to count one shopping unit.

"So the detectors are intelligent enough to determine, from the direction and the speed and the movement of the thermal targets, how many shopping units are in that queue," said Mr Austin.

Electronic tagging

Alison Austin from Sainsbury's said the greatest automation opportunity for retailers lay in not having to change shelf-edge labels.

Recent UK changes to the VAT regime meant that Sainsbury's had to change 25,000 product pricings.

"It would be great to have that digital," said Ms Austin.

Electonic tag using e-ink
Electonic tag suing e-ink mean retailers could easily change prices

Digitisation would have meant the supermarket did not have to re-print all 25,000 labels.

Computer giant IBM has developed digital shelf labels using electronic paper that can be programmed to self-change or be altered by remote control.

E-ink electronic paper works by using electrodes to arrange thousands of tiny black and white charged capsules into shapes to form characters.

Changing the charge, said Mr Bagge, changes the characters the electronic paper displays.

"The intelligent ink only uses power when the price is changed, so the battery lasts for ages, and this is the sort of technology that can free up staff time," he said.

But retailers are not only seeking to be more efficient, but also less wasteful, according to Ms Austin from Sainsbury's.

"We've been looking at the amount of till receipt paper that we've been using, and we are installing double-sided printers at the checkout."

She said this alone would mean a supermarket with 12 checkouts could save 1,850 receipt paper rolls each year.

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