a different world

Technological advances in Asia could have far-reaching implications on the U.S. convenience industry, from cell phone payment to RFID to the networked store.

It’s one thing when your grandmother, who still favors the rotary telephone, is impressed by technology. It’s another when it’s Scott Hartman.

President of Rutter’s Farm Stores, a 50-unit chain based in central Pennsylvania, Hartman is also chairman of the board of the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS) and one of the most impassioned champions for the advancement of technology in the c-store industry.

To that end, the 2005 chairman of the Petroleum Convenience Alliance for Technology Standards (PCATS) recently spent time in Japan and South Korea, appraising the state of technology in Asia and how, where and when those innovations will reach the U.S.

“I was really excited about the dynamics of that marketplace, both from the technology side and the vibrancy of retail,” Hartman said in a recent interview with CSD

. “Watching it all come together shows that we need to be very observant of what’s going on across the oceans. Sometimes, we tend to get a little myopic.”

Hartman was accompanied by abouttwo-dozen information technology (IT)professionals during his weeklong journey;most were from Europe, although Wal-Martand Microsoft were both represented in thegroup. The trip was directed by CIES, aParis-based organization whose acronymtranslates to “International Committee of Food Retail Chains.”

What the group saw was eye-opening. Japanese retailers, for instance, use something as simple as electronic paper, which gives them the ability to change signage wirelessly several times a day, on a bendable, color monitor that uses only two AA batteries for power.

At a Toyota plant that manufactures car parts, they checked out a networked car,complete with a sophisticated navigation system that also monitors the driver’s vital signs to, among other things, ensure the motorist stays awake.

“They’re putting little cameras in the car to check if you’re sleeping,” Hartman said. “If it senses that you’re asleep, little holes will blow cool air on your neck.”

The group also saw networked homes that kept electronic inventories of refrigerators, as well as 80-inch plasma-screen televisions and cell phones with RFID capability and live satellite television.

Cell phones, Hartman said, are far more advanced in Asia, where consumers either already have or will soon have the ability to store digital coupons that can be scanned at the point of sale.

“The ability to go to a gas pump and have it debit right from your cell phone; that makes all the sense in the world,” he said. “When you go into a hypermarket and there’s 24 lanes accepting cell phone for payment, you know it’s not just a test deal.”

After seeing the networked home and networked car, Hartman said, U.S. retailers should prepare for the networked convenience-store. Japan’s Family Mart already offers a window-front terminal of laptops with broadband Internet connections. Customers are afforded Web time based on the amount of their purchase.

Much of the Asian technology, however, is not coming here any time soon—the United States, Hartman said, is about five to seven years behind Japan in cellular phone technology.

“I was just looking at an ad in USA Today and there’s your top wireless guy advertising the new cell phone with a 1.3-megapixel camera,” he said. “Over there, in those same ads, they’re showing a 7-megapixel camera. That gives you an idea of the technology over there.”

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