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Retailing revolution on its way

Supermarket queues will be a thing of the past if RFID tagging takes off.
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Technology (general)

DUSSELDORF, Germany (CNN) -- Metro Group's Future Store looks like any ordinary supermarket when you first enter it.

But on closer inspection, the German company is running a high-tech super store in Rheinberg, 40km north of Dusseldorf, which is expected to pave the way for the future of supermarket retailing.

The store is a test project where emerging technologies -- including the use of RFID tags -- are being trialed, with the view to improving retail efficiency.

RFID -- short for radio frequency identification -- chips or tags contain their own unique number that is attached to an antenna.

It transmits a frequency to a reader and then converts the information into a readable format.

Eventually, say technology experts, RFID will become such an integral part of the shopping experience.

For example, once you leave the supermarket, RFID will enable a computer to tally your grocery total and debit the amount from your bank account immediately, which means no more standing in long queues.

But for now, at least, that vision is some years away.

Metro Group has started tagging individual items within its Future Store and, says company spokesman Marcos Fernandez, every item in the shop will eventually be tagged with RFID.

From a retailer's point of view, the information can be used to monitor supply information and can also be linked with security surveillance systems.

Supermarket chain Tesco has already trialed a scheme whereby RFID microchips were attached to oft shoplifted razor blades. The scheme attracted much attention from privacy groups in the UK.

But at Metro Group's Future Store, RFID technology is being tested on a much bigger scale.

Trolleys are fitted with a personal shopping assistant (PSA) -- a pen-and-tablet computer that allows customers to scan products and pay via an automated checkout, removing the need to pack and then unpack from the trolley.

And as products fitted with RFID tags are moved from shop shelves to the customer's trolleys, staff are alerted to restock items.

Metro spokesperson Albrecht von Truchsess says the Future Store will lay the groundwork for the company's other stores.

"The purpose of this store is to test and develop technology and to bring them to other stores as soon as they are fit for roll out," he says.

"We have done this with the self checkout and we will also have a roll out of RFID in the supply chain in November this year."

Metro -- the world's fourth largest retailer -- has called on technology companies from around the globe to contribute to its Future Store project.

Alain Benichou, vice president for IBM's Europe distribution sector, says the use of RFID technology in supermarkets has enormous potential to benefit both customers and stores.

"The first thing that is very important is the supply chain efficiency. All of a sudden you have the ability to locate where your inventory is," he says.

"The second thing is it reduces out of stock items. The most frustrating thing for a customer is when they have something on the shopping list and they cannot find it. The third thing of course is that it reduces shrinkage. It's an anti-theft device. And the last thing is the expiry date. You always have a fresh product and you can trace the product from the beginning."

But while RFID is being applied in a cutting edge way in Rheinberg, the technology itself has been around for several years.

Charles Walton first patented it in 1970.

He told CNN the technology would eventually make supermarket shopping much easier.

"You'll just push your cart past the checkout point or maybe you'll put out a belt at the checkout point that and you won't have to stop and pull out your credit card that's part of it," says Walton.

"It'll be transferred to your credit account readily, you may even get a credit report when you go home that night, maybe one on your screen, telling you what your bank account is today."

CNN's Stephanie Halasz contributed to this story

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