The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

October 18, 2013

'Smart' shelves to spy on grocery store customers

By Jennifer Abel
Consumer Affairs

— If you’ve ever wanted to say, “The shelves at the grocery store are spying on me” without being accused of harboring paranoid delusions, just wait until 2015.

That’s the year supermarket supercompany Mondelez International (owner of such brands as Nabisco, Kraft, Cadbury and others), in conjunction with Microsoft Kinect, will introduce so-called “smart” store shelves that can “identify the age and sex of the would-be snacker” in the supermarket aisle, the better to decide what sort of advertising to aim at them.  

Tech journalists were nearly unanimous in their effusive praise for this brave new world of in-store targeted advertising. Brian Fung at the Washington Post said, “It’s not quite Minority Report levels of creepiness, but it’s getting there." Fastcompany.com’s Neal Ungerleider called it "the ultimate in creepy yet inevitable marketing tech.”

The idea is that, in addition to identifying the age and gender of consumers, the “smart” shelves will be equipped with weight sensors that notice when an item has been moved. Presumably then, when the sensors detect that a box of cookies has been lifted up by a female aged 18-34, various in-store coupon dispensers or display screens will belch forth whatever suggestions their adbot algorithms think will persuade young women to buy cookies.

Or maybe not. As we’ve noted before, when marketers try targeting campaigns specifically at women, the results tend to be clueless at best and insulting at worst (no, pink packaging does not justify a fourfold price increase). Maybe they do better at marketing to men, though we’re inclined to doubt it.

From a consumer angle, we’re not sure what concerns we should focus toward this forthcoming smartshelf grocery technology: “Oh, no, it might persuade me to buy more junk food than I can afford,” or “Aw, crap, shopping’s irritating enough without computerized sensors tossing asinine ads my way.”

If this smartshelf technology does indeed take off year after next, we hope that in response we can write a “Trends” story with the headline “Grocery shopping in drag: everybody’s doing it.” We personally intend to urge our friends who buy food to foil the sensors by subverting as many age- and gender-related marketing stereotypes as they can.

So if you’re a young woman, try grocery shopping while wearing a gray Gandalf beard and uttering stereotypical old-man phrases like “I look forward to watching this weekend’s televised sporting events, all of which were better in my day.”

By contrast, if you’re an older man, you should wear something pink and then, speaking directly into the sensor, say “Sports are boring. Let’s talk about our relationship.”

We bet you’ll see some hilariously funny ads, either way.

Story provided by ConsumerAffairs.