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Computers May Be The Sales Force of the 1990s

April 23, 1988

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (AP) _ Attention shoppers, it’s time for a quick quiz.

A customer goes into a large discount store hoping to save a bundle on running shoes. He finds that the prices are indeed slashed, but there are eight different kinds to choose from.

What should he do?

A. Buy the pair that looks the most sophisticated.

B. Try to find a sales clerk who may know slightly more than him about running shoes.

C. Leave the store confused.

D. All of the above.

Consumers across the country, whether they’re shopping for shoes or kitchen appliances, are coming up with all of those and other equally unfulfilling answers.

″You almost have to know everything there is to know about a product before you go into a store,″ said James Tiernan, executive director of the Chicago-based American Consumers Association.

Consumer frustration is one reason a tiny Rochester-based computer company has introduced a curious new machine into supermarkets around the country to help the confused, the tired and the busy shopper.

Inter-Ad, a private firm, sells computers that can be used to give directions in the store, to print out recipes or coupons or to offer food preparation instruction, all with a touch of a finger.

″We’ve seen a trend away from the traditional homemaker to two-career families and these are people who have less time to shop,″ said Michael Mizesko, Inter-Ad’s director of marketing. ″Convenience has become more important than price now and these machines are part of that.″

These machines and others like them may be the answer of the future for the baffled consumer, according to two Rochester Institute of Technology professors, who are doing research in the ″consumer computer″ field.

Having computers as sales people is something that has attracted the attention of many large companies, said Dan Joseph and Thomas Williams.

The idea, they say, is to program computers to analyze various consumer decisions - like ″What kind of motor oil do I need?″ or ″How much will these denim jeans stretch?″ - and provide some guidance.

The professors say these so-called ″expert systems″ are going to be popping up in all kinds of stores over the next five years.

″People are getting tired of hearing ‘I don’t know, I just work here.’ They don’t want to be at the mercy of that kind of salesperson,″ said Joseph.

The two researchers are putting the finishing touches on a system to help people choose a personal computer. They also have a program on the drawing board to offer advice on running shoes.

Joseph said he hopes to set up his ″expert computer consultant″ in the school bookstore by the end of the summer and see how it fares. Eventually, he would like to put it in computer stores around the country.

The idea of using computers to analyze problems and offer advice is not new, but so far they have been used mostly in industrial or scientific applications.

The first system, created in the early 70s, was called Mycin and it served the medical profession offering diagnoses of various bacterial blood infections, Joseph said. The only problem was that it took a whole day to get one diagnosis.

Since then, however, expert systems have been greatly improved and are used to diagnose problems in auto engines, to predict where veins of valuable mineral deposits are, and to offer advice to oil drillers.

″The time has come to make the jump to the consumer,″ said Joseph.

Inter-Ad has machines in several hundred stores in 75 different supermarket chains in 32 states and Canada. The store directory is the most popular model, with a cuisine machine, which offers videos of how to carve a turkey or clean a fish, found in about half as many stores.

Last year, Inter-Ad introduced ″The Information Station″ which combines the two machines and also prints coupons and can be used for in-store advertising.

That system is being tested by the Cincinnati-based Kroger Co., which is using it in seven stores. Other chains are also using the system, Mizesko said.

The machines cost from $7,000 to $12,000, he said.

Eventually, the 6-year-old Inter-Ad company that President James Odorczyk started in his home after resigning from Xerox Corp. hopes to use its video kiosks to serve as a national in-store advertising network.

Tiernan, the consumer advocate, warned that the potential use of these ″expert systems″ as advertising vehicles is the biggest drawback they have, although he estimated that overall they would be a service rather than a sales gimmick for shoppers.

″But you still have to remember if the store manager says he’s got an extra shipment of basil he needs to sell, you might see a whole lot of recipes calling for fresh basil,″ Tiernan said.

End Adv Weekend Editions April 23-24

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