Imagine wheeling a shopping cart through your local supermarket, picking items off the shelves and having a device register their price as you put them into the cart.
When you get to the checkout counter, all the clerk has to do is add the tax, total your bill and collect your money.
This high-tech shopping cart is not far from your neighborhood supermarket. Developed by NCR Corp., it's an example of the increasingly sophisticated kinds of technology being developed or already being used to help storekeepers get an edge in the increasingly competitive retail industry.
Running the gamut from the latest in anti-shoplifting equipment to sophisticated computerized inventory control and management systems to products still on the drawing board - such as a hand-held device, similar to a calculator, that will allow a sales clerk to ring up purchases while the customer shops - technology is permeating the nation's stores.
This high-tech revolution is beginning to change the way retailers are running their businesses, often replacing seat-of-the-pants intuition with carefully calculated demographic and merchandising information.
For consumers, some of the changes being wrought by technology may not be immediately obvious. But in the long run, retailers hope technological advances will allow them to provide better customer service and be more in tune with what consumers want.
"The more controlled your business, the more precise your orders and the faster your orders, the more customers will appreciate you," said Tom Friedman, who publishes Retail Systems Alert, a Newton, Mass.-based monthly newsletter on retail automation.
In the past, "retailers have tended to only use technology when it's really been proven," said Herbert Kleinberger, executive vice president of Management Horizons, a retail consulting firm that is a division of Price Waterhouse. "There's a lot of opportunity for technology; it's just been neglected."
But that's changing. Competition among retailers is increasing faster than most markets are expanding. At the same time, the large amounts of debt that many retail companies have taken on in the recent round of industry takeovers are pressuring executives to squeeze out maximum profits.
"That means operating businesses more efficiently, and technology has a key role to play there," Kleinberger said. "That's one reason why retailers are coming back to it, because it wasn't as important to the bottom line as it is now."
Indeed, according to Steven Beck, president of 54-North, a company that sells Arthur, a store-management computer software package that is gaining popularity in the industry, retailers cannot afford to be left behind by the technology revolution.
The difference between having a sophisticated store-management system and not having one is like "the difference between a central heating system and running from room to room with a shovel and coal," Beck said.
The way retailers are using technology is changing as well. Traditionally, retailers have concentrated on applying technology to financial and control aspects of their business, rather than using it to make more strategic decisions, according to John Chay, vice president of information systems at the National Retail Merchants Association, a New York-based trade group.
"But that's the direction they are heading now. They want to knock off the competition."