• November 1, 2011
  • By Leonard Klie Editor, Speech Technology and CRM magazines
  • FYI

Market Spotlight: Retail

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In early September, French supermarket chain Casino began working with The Vision Institute, a research hospital in Paris, to experiment with near field communications (NFC) technology that could allow blind shoppers to wave their mobile phones over short-range wireless tags on store shelves to hear product information read aloud via speech synthesis technologies.

The retail chain is currently testing the technology in a simulated shopping environment and expects to begin live trials in a real store next year.

The lab, which replicates a typical Casino store, is designed to help the retailer test and develop technologies that could make shopping more accessible for blind, visually impaired, and otherwise disabled people.

Casino's tests involve NFC-enabled phones and tablet PCs, such as the Apple iPad, which users can use to scan NFC tags to hear the names of the corresponding products, prices, contents, ingredients, and other information.

The technology for the study is being provided by Think&Go NFC, a French firm.

NFC technology, which is largely touted for its potential in mobile payments, customer loyalty, and tracking consumer behavior, has yet to take off in the United States, but several research and analyst firms predict a huge uptake in the next three to five years. Frost & Sullivan, for example, predicts that there could be 863 million NFC-enabled phones worldwide by 2015, with the largest concentrations in Europe and North America.

But before the tests even conclude, several advocates for the blind are already questioning the long-term usefulness of NFC technology in the grocery store. "It's something blind people will be interested in, but there won't be a huge groundswell," says Darren Burton, the national technology program associate at the American Foundation for the Blind, which is based in New York.

"The practicality in the grocery store just isn't there," he said. "I'm not going to go around the store waving my phone around until I find the butter."

Burton and other blind people find it easier to go grocery shopping with a sighted person who can pick out the items they need.

Where NFC would be helpful, Burton says, is if it were incorporated into the product labeling. "On-store shelving doesn't help me when I take the product out of the store," he says. "It would help me at home to find an item in my cabinet and to give me cooking instructions or recipe ideas."

While that might be feasible for high-priced items, like computers and televisions, it's not likely to be cost-effective on a four-dollar box of cereal, he says.

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