Automated ShoppingAutomated Shopping

Automation has penetrated with electronic computers into the world of shopkeepers too. We may soon see it at work in some of America's giant self-service stores, supermarkets and shopping areas. Goods for sale will have tickets attached to them with a printed price and a perforated code. Mrs. Smith, who has just been buying canned goods, takes them to the cash desk. The cashier tears off the punched sections of the tickets and slips them into the slot of a reading device. The device waits - never longer than a few fractions of a second - until the great electronic computer in the cellar is free and tells it what is punched into the tickets: the kind of goods and their price. The computer adds them up, and after a hardly measurable time interval it flashes numbers on an illuminated sign telling Mrs. Smith how much she has to pay. She hands over the money, the cashier types the total, and immediately afterwards Mrs. Smith's change glides into her expectant palm. But probably Mrs. Smith won't pay cash at all. As a regular customer she simply shows her credit card, which is entrusted to the reading device together with the punched sections of the price tickets. An additional machine prints the amount on the card and stamps it at the same time. The computer makes a note of the amount too, and at the end of the month Mrs. Smith gets a statement for all she owes.

That is all Mrs. Smith will see of supermarket automation in practice. Mr. Pepperson, manager of the store, sees more. Every evening he gets from his computer a detailed statement of the day's business. If canned peaches or potatoes have been selling particularly well, the computer draws Mr. Pepperson's attention to the fact, though it leaves him free to wonder or guess why there has been a rush on them. On another piece of paper, often yards long, the computer states every evening which products are running low and must soon be replenished. It goes without saying that the computer will incidentally work out the pay and salaries of the personnel.

Shopping could hardly be more highly automated - one would think. But it can. There are soon to be American shops which will manage quite well without cashiers, consisting mainly of large showcases in which the goods for sale are exhibited. Each article has a number. Mrs. Smith, the regular customer, has a special key which she inserts into a keyhole; she then presses a button or selects a number on a dial like that of a telephone to pick out the article she would like to have. The goods are then forwarded automatically to an issuing counter and from there they drop into the customer's shopping bag. The price is worked out automatically and booked to the account of Mrs. Smith.

Mr. Baker, who is not a regular customer and has no key, must put his money into the slot of an automatic machine before his purchases appear on the issuing counter. His change is given him automatically.

The computers in these stores are often special devices, built and programmed especially for the purpose. More and more of them have come into use during the last few years. For the most part they are not a bit cheaper than the fully-programmed machines, for they have to be specially planned and designed.

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© by PhiloPhax & Lauftext & Redaktion Lohberg
Kybernetik - Was ist das?

First printed in Germany: 1963


Cybernetic Computer and Electronic Brain

The fascinating story of how computers work in clear, non-mathematical language