EDS Pushing A Cart That Counts Calories

EDS in Europe this week <a href="http://www.eds.com/industries/cir/downloads/EDSIDGReport_aw_final.pdf">floated the idea of a smartcart that would analyze nutritional information of goods as consumers were considering them for purchase.

"Shoppers want barcode readers on their trolleys (shopping carts) to calculate the nutritional content and tell them when they have blown their calorific budget," EDS's Sion Roberts, director of consumer industries and retail, <a href="http://news.yahoo.com/s/nm/20071009/tc_nm/britain_shopping_trolley_tech_dc">told Reuters. Setting aside for the moment whether consumers really want to know, the bigger question is whether retailers and consumer goods manufacturers would want to pay to let them know.

For some specialty stores that focus on the especially health-minded consumer, it could be a nice plus. But this would have to be funded by larger chains that make a healthy amount of their profit on impulse items, which strongly to be high-calories. When was the last time you saw broccoli or spinach used as an impulse come on?

Roberts' comment also raises a practical issue. In the United States, consumers tend to purchase for a family and for a week's supply, as opposed to parts of Europe where purchasing for today's meals today is more common. When purchasing for several people and perhaps dozens of meals, how is the cart to calculate when a "caloric budget" has been blown?

To be fair, this report is based on consumer surveys so taking the leap from what consumers tell a survey taker they want and what they actually want—or what they'll actually use—is dangerous. And even if consumers truly want it and would actually use it, would it be enough of a lure to get them to switch retail preferences? Only when we get to that final stage will this start to—maybe—look interesting to larger retail chains.

The report also speaks to the consumer interest in having less packaging and EDS raises the question of whether widespread use of this nutritionally-nagging smartcart would enable a reduction in packaging. In the U.S., I find that unlikely as the packaging is for all to see. Even if the carts were rolled out and somehow cornered the market with a 90 percent marketshare, that would still leave far too many non-smart-carted consumer out there that would need to see the labels.

Let's be candid. Manufacturers and many retailers like the labels—with their tiny fineprint that few bother reading and even fewer properly interpret—as they are. Healthy is expensive and to compete on price, many retailers need to embrace less healthy options. Does this mean that a healthy margin means an unhealthy product? Not always, but it happens far too often for this concept to be embraced in the U.S..