Let's Go Shopping

Posted
By Douglas S. Parker

After deciding recently that peeking cautiously at quarterly brokerage statements might not be the best investment strategy, I can now say that while I've been sleeping at the investing switch for the last couple of years, innovation has been working overtime.

Having scoffed for a while at what "good paying green jobs" might have meant, it didn't take a lot of poking around in the battery, fuel cell, natural gas and chemical industries, to paint a more vivid and alluring picture. As an investor waking up from a long hibernation, I only wish this was a party where I had shown up unfashionably early.

Despite most of us having spent the last few years of the economic meltdown hunkered down, reducing our expenses and keeping a low profile, there have been some brave souls that have been hard at work reinventing how the world might work in this century.

Take for instance a company that calls themselves a mobile application studio - Chaotic Moon. It takes guts (and success) for them to promote their services by saying they're smarter than you, they're more creative than you and they can make you more money. While I'm not personally interested in brainwave controlled skateboards, I was very interested to read what Wired, PCWorld and GeekWire (hey, an investor has to seek high and low for good opportunities), had to say about them helping Whole Foods develop the shopping cart of the future.

Do I really need a shopping cart that follows me down the aisles? I wouldn't have thought so, but given the skinny aisles in my local grocery store and the added benefit of not having to worry about circumnavigating stock boys, small children and those whose only job appears to be getting in everyone else's way, maybe my visceral reaction was all wrong. Add in the bonus of not having to correct for wheels that inevitably pull to the side or having to apologize for smacking my cart directly into someone while I'm busy scanning the shelves for some product that I'm too embarrassed to ask where it's located, and grocery shopping begins to look more like toy shopping from a kid's perspective.

Think about it. Self navigating, self powered, shopping carts that know where to find the items on your list, know what you've added, tell you if you've added the wrong item (say, frozen rather than fresh broccoli - without having to wait for your spouse to tell you after you've gotten home) and can perform the checkout without having to take everything out of the cart. That smells like the future is about to arrive.

So what's involved? I guess we'll all have to wait until MJ from iFixit gracefully performs the official teardown, but in the meantime, it appears the Smarter Cart consists of a basic shopping cart that's been modded to include a Windows 8 tablet, Kinect sensor, barcode scanner, battery, motor, a whole lot of software (locally and in a cloud or two) and a speech-based interface like Apple's Siri, that hopefully won't make too many smart remarks about my food choices or mock me with synthesized tsk-tsk noises.

Will it work? Maybe. Others have tried aspects of this before. Like IBM's Shopping Buddy.

What I like about it as a consumer is the chance to improve the grocery shopping experience. What I like about it as an investor is the knowledge that innovation is still alive and kicking all over, not just at 1 Infinite Loop. What I like about it as an outsourcing advisor is that it seems like things are about to get really interesting.