Shopping becomes a 'smart' experience

DN Staff

September 22, 1997

6 Min Read
Shopping becomes a 'smart' experience

Ever wish you could make that trip to the supermarket an effortless experience? That day has arrived with a new shopping concept called the Smart BoxTM.

The revolutionary system enables consumers to use returnable, reusable grocery boxes they purchase for less than $2 in combination with a new grocery cart (trolley). The containers not only offer grocery retailers an opportunity to improve their customer service with a smarter way to shop and pack, but they help the environment at the same time.

Jointly developed by Buko Limited (Glenrothes, Scotland) and Dow Chemical Co. Limited (Winslow, England), the automated, self-scanning technology offers the convenience of not having to unload then repack groceries at the checkout line. And, since the technology won't work within a metal framework, plastics played a major role in the system's design.

In October 1994, Buko, an innovator in the shopping-equipment market, and Dow teamed to develop a supermarket cart that could be used with self-scanning technology. The system, based on a hand-held, battery-powered self-scanner, allows customers to check their own purchases as they shop. Scanner contents are downloaded at the cash register; the customers pay the bill and leave the store with the purchased items still in the box. And, since they can stack up to six boxes on the carts, customers not only don't have to unload items and repack them into grocery bags, but when they get home they don't have to separate them.

How it works. Various attempts to introduce forms of box shopping have been made over the past 20 years, according to David Butchart, sales and marketing director at Buko. However, until recently, stores have had little incentive to incur the expense to implement the system, which can run up to $100,000 for a store with 30,000 boxes, says Peter Merryweather, business and development manager at Dow--until the SuperTag, that is.

SuperTag is a passive radio frequency (RF) transponder marketed by the British Technology Group (London). The RF tag, attached to the grocery item, is "read" by passing the groceries still in the Smart Box through an "RF Loop" on the checkout belt. As a result, Smart Box creates a lasting plastic box shopping system that meets the new RF system's requirements (SuperTag will not work with metal baskets or carts), allowing the use of the self-scanning technology.

Buko and Dow began their business relationship by co-developing the concept. A manufacturer of metal carts, Buko brought more than 30 years of experience in the retail grocery industry to the table. Dow provided the plastic knowledge and materials that would enable the two companies to become an integrated supplier. In January 1995, Smart Box prototypes were completed and approved, followed by the submission of patent and registered design applications by the partners.

Mailbox Mouldings (Cheshire, England) part of the Stamford Group, molds the Smart Boxes for Buko and Dow. "Dow made the first global delivery of polypropylene to the Stamford Group in September 1996," Merryweather reports. "Since then, Mailbox Mouldings has constructed two 50-ton silos to store the polypropylene resin."

The molder produces the containers using two 1,300-ton Toshiba fast-cycling molding machines, automated hot-foil stamping and handle insertion, and palletization. With two new dual-cavity tools, the molder can turn out 80,000 boxes per week.

Due to the low density of polypropylene, finished parts require less raw material than other plastic materials, claims Kyle Lorton, senior product marketing manager at Dow. "Polypropylene is one of the most cost-effective commodity plastics available," he explains. "The combinations of properties--good fatigue resistance, greater strength and stiffness, and good chemical resistance to hydrocarbons, alcohols, and non-oxidizing agents--make the material ideal for the use and abuse the containers experience in the shopping arena."

Going commercial. Along with the design activities, Buko made systems presentations to several grocery retail organizations. J. Sainsbury (London), a leading UK supermarket owner, signed up in May 1995. Dow and Buko provided in-store promotions at Sainsbury's Camberly, UK, store launch in October 1996. Customers were offered a Smart Box container at a reduced cost when purchasing GB pound 20 ($33) of groceries.

"The launch was extremely successful," says Butchart. "We sold about 30,000 Smart Box containers. J. Sainsbury then decided to launch the concept in six more stores. He adds that if 15% to 20% of the customers buy the boxes, the store considers its investment a winner. Moreover, the system eliminates the cost of supplying shoppers with paper or plastic bags to tote their purchases home, as well as facing the added aggravation of having to dispose of the bags in an environmentally acceptable manner. And, unlike bags, the boxes won't leak if one of the liquid products breaks.

The system has since spread to more than 50 stores across several chains in Ireland, France, and Belgium. Butchart adds that Finnish and Norwegian chains are considering the system.

"In addition to marketing Smart Box containers throughout Europe, we are also working with several retail organizations to bring the containers' convenience to consumers in North America," Dow's Lorton reveals.

History behind the Smart Box

The concept of box shopping first appeared at the Food Marketing Institute (FMI) show in Chicago in 1983. Symbol Technologies, a U.S. company known for its airport baggage cart technology, exhibited a new trolley (cart) design and cardboard box at the show. The product proved commercially unsuccessful, but impressed many of the show's visitors.

Eleven years later at FMI, Symbol introduced a new concept of self-scanning at a seminar. The presentation noted that the first year's experience with public use of small, portable barcode readers proved highly innovative. Some cart makers predicted the technology would have a significant impact on future cart designs and the superstore environment.

In-Store Products, a Canadian company, also announced at the FMI show that year it had developed an environmentally conceptualized product called the Green BoxTM that would replace bags.

In January 1994, the British Technology Group (BTG) generated worldwide press interest with the news it had secured the licensing rights for the South African SuperTag. Many felt the ground-breaking invention could be used as a type of super-price barcode, allowing goods to be scanned by passing a shopping cart through a radio frequency (RF) field.

About this same time, a Dow representative visited the Buko company in Scotland to explore extending the use of polymers in shopping carts. The launch of Symbol self-scanning at FMI and the continuing publicity of SuperTag encouraged Buko and Dow to seriously consider their nontraditional cart system design. Carts with plastic baskets that worked with the SuperTag had already been developed, but it was concluded that a box and cart system offered more benefits to the shopper and the retailer., and the Smart Box system was born.

The Smart Boxes come with handles as well as hand-grips. Their absence of holes prevents inevitable spills that may stain clothes or car upholstery. Boxes are tailored to a UK average cart size that measures less than 650 mm wide.

Three cart sizes offer a two-, five-, or six-box capacity. The larger carts feature nestable newborn and twin-child versions that save space within stores.

The system debuted in October 1995 at a J. Sainsbury supermarket in Camberly, UK. It continues to win converts with as many as three new store rollouts a week throughout Europe.

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