The e-ink supermarket

A system to update product prices in a supermarket raises questions about the future of paper.

Over the last few years there’s been discussion about how long paper will continue to be used. People have wondered whether e-ink devices, such as Amazon’s Kindle, would be the death of books. Likewise, if tablets such as the iPad would kill off newspapers and magazines.

Broadly speaking, it feels as though this debate has been about life outside the workplace. When it comes to business, we’ve been using phrases like ‘paperless office’ for years; we’ve all been moving slowly towards a model that uses less and less paper. Now it seems that trend could start to gather momentum in other sectors as companies start creating e-ink systems to replace the paper tags on supermarket shelves.

Think about the average supermarket. Thousands of products, each kind with its own price, printed on paper cards placed on the shelf edge. These tags need to be updated and/or changed to represent changes in stock and pricing. Doing this takes up staff time; not doing it leads to customer confusion – which takes up staff time.

The solution? Replace the pricing cards with small e-ink screens that can be updated wirelessly. This is better than small LCD or LED screens because e-ink, in essence, only uses power when the image is changed.

Supermarkets aren’t the only places where e-ink screens could be useful. Imagine hotels and conference centres updating room names automatically; restaurant chains where menus can be updated from head office; even picking and packing departments in factories.

Of course, paper will still play its part the day-to-day life of business, especially in countries where there isn’t the money or infrastructure to invest in these systems, but don’t be surprised if it eventually becomes something that’s used in an emergency – if we need to scribble a note – rather than something that’s essential for a business to operate.

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