Going Paperless Isn't Always Green, Supermarkets Swapping Price Tags for LCDs

Digital tags in a grocery store displaying prices for vegetables.

zachary jean paradis / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Here is a pretty cool idea that holds a lot of potential for being green and effective, and yet is using already-out-dated technology that strips it of that status.

Altierre Corp. is working on getting supermarkets to replace the price tags on aisle shelves with LCD screens that can update prices at a whim in seconds. They say this is "green" but we have some serious issues with their concept. Facts first. The product that Altierre is coming out with is essentially LCD screens in the place of the paper price tag hung on aisle shelves. The price displayed on the LCD can be wirelessly updated from a central computer. It replaces paper, sure, but they'll have to do a lot more convincing to make us think this is green.

The idea is pretty neat at first glance - ditch paper and get more accurate pricing. It reduces labor hours, paper consumption, and errors in pricing. But, we just barely have to scratch the surface shine off to see some pretty big issues. It adds a whole new element to our paper versus digital display comparison.

Already Outdated Technology

Juice boxes in France with the prices on digital display tags.

Mike / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

First of all, they use LCD display technology which is already outdated in the green tech sphere. LED, OLED, e-ink...any of these would be a lower-power, greener option. Yes, definitely more expensive, but definitely greener. And what happens when one shopping cart too many bangs into the LCD display and it breaks? Off to the landfill, most likely where it will sit as toxic waste. Not cool. How can we be sure supermarkets will responsibly recycle junked displays? Will Altierre Corp have a take-back program for dead devices? Beyond that, are the displays manufactured with green in mind, such as using recycled plastic for the casings?

A Question of Power Consumption

Digital price tag on a shelf with juices.

Mike / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Secondly, does the amount of power consumed by these devices day in and day out, along with the energy consumed to run the system as a whole really outweigh the impact of printing paper stickers? The company notes that they've taken a lot of steps to make the system as low power as possible. But is it more low-power than paper? We don't have specific numbers on hand to run a scenario, but it is difficult to come to a quick conclusion that it is more energy efficient than paper, especially considering that the display devices likely have short lifespans. The batteries alone for each device need to be replaced every 5 years, if the device even lasts that long.

May We Suggest...

If we were to make some suggestions, we'd point out that it might be a whole lot greener to utilize up-and-coming technology that would provide more energy efficient and toxic display devices. E-ink would be a perfect option here, and so too would options for renewable energy for charging the devices. It would mean the system would be much more expensive immediately, but would end up comparing more directly to the footprint of paper.

What Does This Say About Supermarkets?

A woman shopping for groceries as she holds a phone.

FG Trade / Getty Images

Additionally, it brings into question the micromanagement of customers by supermarkets, and a greener place to shop besides major grocery stores.

One aspect of the system Altierre points out is that it can be used to change prices of food items throughout the day to match demographics of shoppers. An example is running specials on items senior citizens are likely to purchase during the times of day that senior citizens are shopping. Feel a bit manipulative? It doesn't stop there.

They also would like to put displays on shopping carts so that as you walk down an aisle, your cart will tell you what items are on special nearby and that you should go buy them. Neat...for a second. But how much will supermarkets get paid by major brands to ensure certain companies' products are the ones flashing on that screen, effectively edging out the little guys (such as organic, fair trade, local products lucky enough to find themselves in supermarkets).

There are a number of pros and cons to the system, though it seems that for now, going paperless isn't necessarily a greener option.

Via EETimes