As the technology crowd gathers this week in San Diego for the Food Marketing Institute's Marketechnics 2002 show, it's time to reflect on what some are citing as a growing concern -- privacy.
The issue has been documented in news reports involving how some shoppers are offended by technological advances they claim strip them of personal liberties.
There is a growing sentiment among some supermarket shoppers in Dallas that loyalty card programs invade their privacy. This developed after Albertson's, Boise, Idaho, one of the only major chains in that area that didn't have a loyalty card, decided to implement one in that market.
"Simply the idea that we have to fill out a form and give private information to buy food. This impacts our ability to affordably eat," said Katerine Albrecht, founder and editor of Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering.
Another civil liberties group says it is offended by a different piece of technology, a "know-it-all" grocery cart. Manufactured by Klever-Kart, Salt Lake City, the cart will enable shoppers to swipe their loyalty cards against a screen mounted on it. As they shop, the screen will flash ads for products they usually purchase and tell them things like, "you haven't bought toothpaste in six months."
This, I am sure, is considered an ultimate one-to-one marketing tool by many industry observers.
The problem is, not everyone is happy with advances like this.
Michael Sansolo, senior vice president, FMI, said what it boils down to is how much technology is too much technology?
The bottom line, according to Sansolo, is that technology is good as long as it helps retailers "do what they're supposed to do." If the technology helps retailers get food to consumers as cheaply and effectively as possible, then it's good.
There is a caveat, though, Sansolo said. "If it [the technology] annoys them, then it's too much technology."
Ultimately, the shopper still has freedom of choice. No one is forced to join a loyalty card program, use a self-scanning checkout aisle, or even wheel the "know-it-all" cart around.
But, if I can save 49 cents on a gallon of orange juice by just having the cashier swipe a loyalty card, that is a temptation that is hard to avoid.
Sansolo said retailers have to start doing a better job of explaining to customers how the new technologies work and how it is benefiting them.
"Price is the key element," he said. "Market research committees show that a lot of people no longer have the time to clip coupons. Now, these loyalty card programs do the work for them."
Sansolo said retailers need to reach out to their shoppers by using advertising, fliers and store employees to explain how the new technologies are benefiting them.
Supermarkets that implement loyalty card programs, self-scanning, kiosks or any other new system need to tell shoppers why they are doing it and how it benefits them, he said.
I think that's a logical start. But, there will always be detractors. As the technology advances further, smart tags are not too far behind and the protests may get louder. Now may be the time to start the education process.