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IBM aims to satisfy data-hungry shoppers

Big Blue's retail group offers technology standard for connecting kiosks and shopping carts to Web applications. Photo: That's one smart shopping cart

Online shopping from home has become almost second nature. Now IBM wants to bring Web shopping to stores.

The computing giant has donated to a retail standards body a specification that, if widely used, will provide a standardized way to connect in-store objects, such as kiosks and shopping carts, to Web applications. According to IBM, the technology has the potential to dramatically shift today's shopping experience, giving people much more information while they shop at brick-and-mortar stores.

The Association for Retail Technology Standards, or ARTS, which is affiliated with the National Retail Federation, has accepted the IBM submission and created a charter to build an industry standard.

U-Scan Shopper

If adopted by retail device manufacturers and application providers, the standard will allow consumers to get information about products from kiosks and handheld devices while they shop. IBM customer Stop & Shop Supermarkets is already testing the system in a few Boston-area stores. The Stop & Shop system forms the basis for the proposed standard.

"This is changing the nature of the shopping experience (by) wedding Web application capability and a variety of devices," Hollis Posey, chief technical officer of IBM's retail stores division, told CNET

Customers of the existing service use a device, called the Stop & Shop Buddy, which has an 8.5-inch display that slots into a regular shopping cart.

The customer swipes a frequent shopping card, and the Buddy calls up the person's shopping list, which can be sent over the Web or compiled from a shopping history. The device will display a map of where items are.

Consumers can scan items to get an item description, as well as nutritional information and recipes. They can also order items from the deli and use a kiosk to check out wine selections.

The key technical leap in the Stop & Shop application is a bridge between in-store devices and the Web. The proposed standard will give retail manufacturers and application programmers a common way to share information between devices in a store.

"In the past, the implementation has been device- and application-specific, so what you wind up with chimneys of services that are difficult to integrate with other services," Posey said.

A standard for the industry would spur the creation of more retail applications that pull data from Web applications, Posey said. During a customer visit, salespeople could tap into a rich store of information on complex products, such as digital cameras, he said. Also envisioned are questionnaires that help a salesperson through the sales process with a customer.

In donating the Web retail specification, IBM is handing over the intellectual-property rights to ARTS.

That policy is part of IBM's stated initiative to submit intellectual property to standards bodies and open-source communities. The company intends to propose other industry-specific standards.