(Jan. 13) You’d hardly recognize some of the futuristic devices you’ll find these days as you stroll down the aisles of innovative supermarkets in North America.

Shoppers now can pay for their purchases by having their fingerprint scanned, or by waving a wand at a cash register, they can see a list of the day’s specials as they push their carts down an aisle and they even can scan their own groceries — from soup to produce.

Some technological innovations still are in test mode, but others already have proved their worth, and just about all promise to benefit consumers and retailers alike in the not-too-distant future.

Here’s a look at what some supermarkets are doing to welcome their customers to the new millennium:

SPEEDPASS

Stop & Shop Cos. Inc., the Boston-based supermarket chain with 330 stores in five states, plans to test the Speedpass payment system early this year. The system was introduced at Mobil service stations in 1997.

Shoppers sign up to use the system by registering their credit card number and loyalty card information. They receive a wand to use at the checkout, which eliminates the need for cash and provides quick-pay options. When they’re ready to pay for their items, consumers point a 1.5-inch “wand” at a cash register. Speedpass operates on a radio frequency that transmits an identification and security code. Purchases are charged to the consumer’s check card or credit card.

Speedpass will allow Stop & Shop customers to receive all the discounts and rewards of the chain’s loyalty card program without having to swipe a separate card.

“The test will be conducted in a select group of our greater Boston-area stores,” says company spokeswoman Kelly O’Connor. “We’re always seeking out new services and technologies that are going to improve our customers’ shopping experiences.”

Exxon Mobil is working with Timex to develop a watch containing an imbedded transponder that would let customers pay by pointing their watch at an electronic reader.

SHOPPING CART VIDEO

Shopping Buddy, a video screen that fits on a shopping cart, is another innovation scheduled for testing early this year in a group of Boston-area Stop & Shop stores, O’Connor says.

The 8- by 10-inch touch-screen device, which is mounted to the front of a cart, will enable customers to scan their loyalty cards and receive customized promotions via the screen as they shop. For example, the screen might display a list of a shopper’s favorite items based on past purchases or show which items are on sale in a particular aisle as the consumer walks by. It even will have a global positioning system that will indicate where a shopper is in the store.

Consumers will be able to order items for pickup in the deli section, run their own price checks and scan their own merchandise before payment at the checkstand, O’Connor says. This reduces consumers need to stand in line, as items are already rung up when they reach the cash registers — all shoppers have to do is pay.

Bill Dupre, chief operating officer at Klever Marketing Inc., Salt Lake City, says his company makes a similar device that has an item locator and store map and can run information like news and sports as well as in-store specials. It is scheduled for testing early in 2003 by Big Y Foods Inc., Springfield, Mass., and Hy-Vee Food Stores Inc., West Des Moines, Iowa.

Dupre says cost of the devices can vary greatly, depending on the level of sophistication the retailer chooses to incorporate.

SELF-CHECKOUT

Self-scanning is one technology that has moved past the test stage.

The Food Marketing Institute, Washington, D.C., estimates that 20% to 25% of grocers have installed self-checkout units. Schnuck Markets Inc., St. Louis; the Kroger Co., Cincinnati; Meijer Inc., Grand Rapids, Mich.; Wal-Mart Stores, Bentonville, Ark.; and Supervalu Inc., Minneapolis, are a few major chains that offer self-checkout.

The systems give retailers more flexibility in scheduling cashiers and speed shoppers through the checkout process — especially shoppers with small orders.

To use the FastLane system from NCR Corp., Dayton, Ohio, shoppers scan their items and place them in the bagging area adjacent to the scanner. A list of scanned items, their prices and a running total are displayed on a screen. The scanner is equipped with a built-in scale for produce items sold by weight. A simple look-up feature on a touch-screen helps consumers tell the system what item they’re buying. The system accepts coupons, and shoppers can pay with cash, credit or debit cards.

A typical installation of four units and one attendant costs about $100,000, which can be recouped in 12 to 18 months, according to a company spokesman.

The 1,350-store Supervalu chain installed the system in two stores more than a year ago and recently expanded the program to an additional five stores, says Polly Deane, company spokeswoman. Five of the sites are Cub Food stores and two are Shop ‘n Save stores.

Deane says self-checkout has been “very favorably received by our customers,” and was added as a complement to the stores’ regular checkout stations. The number of stations varies by store, but Deane says the typical store has four self-checkout lanes.

BIOMETRICS

Biometric access — a process that enables consumers to pay for purchases via a fingerprint scan — has been launched at the West Seattle Thriftway supermarket.

To participate in the program, a customer allows her fingerprint to be scanned into a database. The shopper designates a credit or debit card to which all purchases will be charged. When making a purchase, the shopper simply places her finger into a slot on the same console that reads swipe cards.

At Thriftway, an independent store that is part of Associated Grocers Inc., based in Baton Rouge, La., and one of 26 stores in the Seattle-area Thriftway group, the right index finger is scanned and the customer keys in a code, usually a telephone number. Loyalty-card benefits also are awarded.

Store owner Paul Kapioski says more than 3,000 shoppers were using the system as of late last year. The system, implemented in May, is not used enough to result in a dollar savings by itself, but the store does save on transaction charges by steering consumers to apply their purchases to debit cards, for which the store pays a lower fee than for credit cards.

“About 98% of the cards that are enrolled are debit cards,” Kapioski says.

Initially, shoppers raised some privacy concerns, he says, but he attributed that to a lack of understanding the system. The store does not maintain any personal records. “All this does is allow you to access your own accounts in a different way,” Kapioski says. “Instead of a card swipe, you just put down your finger image.”

Kapioski says the process is secure because the store checks shoppers’ identification when they enroll, reducing the danger of someone using a lost or stolen card.

The cost of the image readers has come down to less than $100 per unit, he says, and he expects the technology to be widespread in two to three years.

“It’s getting better and cheaper every day,” he says. “It’s great technology and it’s fast and easy.”

ELECTRONIC SHELF TAGS

Changing shelf price tags every time a new ad comes out is a thing of the past at five of the seven stores in the Knowlan’s Super Markets Inc., group based in Vadnais Heights, Minn.

The stores have adopted electronic shelf labels from NCR, says Edward Doud, Knowlan’s director of retail technology. ESLs are digital tags that can be attached to shelves or other store fixtures. They digitally display prices and other marketing information like nutrition benefits and are linked to the same computer system used by the stores’ point-of-sale systems. The system allows a store manager or director to change prices at all stores with a keystroke.

The labels are used on nearly all dry goods in the Knowlan’s stores and on produce items that have Universal Product Codes, including value-added salads and dressings.

“We don’t utilize them for the per-pound items,” Doud says, but that likely will change.

New versions of the tags are larger than the original ones, which were too small to contain all the data the store required for produce, Doud says.

Electronic labels are more durable than paper tags that often don’t hold up well in the damp environment in produce.

The labels attract attention to sale items because they flash the regular price, sale price and the amount shoppers will save on the item, Doud says. The stores have been using the electronic shelf labels for three years. The latest version enables the store to program several screens worth of information.

RSS-14

RSS-14 codes developed by the Uniform Code Council Inc., Princeton, N.J., are codes made up of 14-digit numbers that provide brand names, item description and other information for perishables, similar to what Universal Product Codes do for grocery items.

“It’s like turning a red delicious apples into a can of Campbell’s tomato soup,” says Greg Rowe, the council’s director of food and beverage, because produce can be scanned at checkout like any standard grocery item.

Each reduced space symbology code identifies a vendor with the product using a Global Trade Identification Number. The RSS bar code will be added to the current Price Look-Up sticker on produce items.

A Global Trade Identification Number could enable companies to collaborate and communicate with each other more efficiently and eliminate the need to store hard copies of invoices and mail out checks.

Cost to update supermarkets for the RSS-14 code has been estimated at $2,600 to $62,000 per store. The return on investment is three months if the store is upgrading equipment and 17 months if it invests in new equipment.

A major Canadian retailer was using RSS-14 codes on avocados, tomatoes and some varieties of apples in 2002, and it plans to add citrus, bananas and increase the number of apple varieties for 2003, Rowe says. Some major retailers in the United States and Australia have expressed interest in implementing the program this year.