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Our New Shopping Wonderworld

Sadistic, high-tech fiends have now joined with a giant European retail chain to further depersonalize the shopping experience and make going to the mall as joyous as getting a root canal.
 
 
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I have seen the future ... and I don't want to go there.

An outfit called Metro Group says that our future is shopping, specifically, electronic shopping. I don't much enjoy any shopping, but sadistic, high-tech fiends have now joined with this giant European retail chain to further depersonalize the experience and make going to the mall as joyous as getting a root canal.

They are combining computer technology with something called RFID, or radio frequency identification. This includes attaching tiny electronic antennas to every consumer product – every shirt, television, etc. Retailers will be able to "read" signals from these radio chips to know where the products are in the distribution chain, all the way from factories in China to your shopping bag.

It's all about retailing efficiency, they tell us, as though we are gullible rubes who don't know that computers mean fewer retail clerks, more technological glitches, and much consumer frustration. Still, they paint a glowing shopping picture in which, say, you find a red shirt you like and go to a dressing room to try it on. There, a computer monitor automatically displays the price of the shirt, alternative styles and colors, and a handy list of other items you can buy to go with it.

Let's say you decide to buy the shirt, but want it in blue, so you make your selection on the touch-screen in the dressing room. Thanks to RFID, a backroom stock clerk delivers your choice to the checkout counter, where a computer automatically reads the RFID and charges your credit card for the sale.

How many chances for foul-ups can you count in this electronic wonderworld? Wrong shirt, wrong price, computer down, clerk gone missing? If there was a skilled human at the counter, you could get help – but instead, you're left shouting into virtual space.

Still Metro Group says: "This is a futuristic vision of retailing, but it is a future which has already begun." Let the horror begin.

Jim Hightower is the best-selling author of Let's Stop Beating Around the Bush , from Viking Press. For more information, visit jimhightower.com.