TRANSLATION: MEMPHIS: Untouched by Human Hands 

Recently a friend and I got into a conversation about the pros and cons of Wal-Mart as it pertains to the enhancement or degradation of the community fabric of America.

By now, of course, this has become a common topic of debate.

Inevitably, you end up with those on the hell, it’s super-convenient and cheap side, and those who bemoan the chain’s lack of personality and uncanny ability to bring a drought to local business.

I remember a roommate in college giving me a bumper sticker with the slogan “Wal-Mart sucks the life out of your town.” Somebody in her family was an active protester, out in the trenches, camped out by the glow of the fluorescent parking lot light.

What cannot be debated, though, is the fact that everyday life and technology will become ever-closer bedfellows as we trek toward the future. Such is the temperament of progress.

Beyond Wal-Mart’s model of distribution and marketing, of course, there are a host of other advances that are slowly reshaping the consumer experience in America.

I, for example, adore the U-Scan lanes at our local Kroger stores.

I guess I like to check myself out. Ha ha…

And I know that by participating in such a thing, I could theoretically be labeled a non-supporter of human interaction, a destroyer of jobs, a demon of depersonalization.

But alas, I am hooked, even as I experience strange pangs of guilt while swiping my Hot Pockets across the scanner.

The newest technological focal point for my curiosity, though, is Smartmart, a fully automated convenience store, billed as “the world’s first,” that is set to open at the corner of Park and White Station later this month.

The company is based out of Memphis.

I am enchanted and I am terrified.

If you drive by the intersection, just across from the Eastgate shopping complex, you can see what will soon be our “store of the future.”

Actually, the car wash and fuel pumps are already open, but that’s not so exciting, now is it? We’re all familiar with “pay at the pump.” Its entry has been logged in the annuls of convenience.

Essentially, Smartmart is a large shipping container which holds merchandise that can be purchased by navigating an infrared touch screen display.

This is a step up from the “Keedoozle” that Clarence Saunders of Piggly Wiggly fame experimented with in the thirties. This was a key-activated device that sent merchandise along a conveyor belt and to a checkout stand. What is it about Memphis and convenience-shopping technology?

But back to the Smartmart.

Nobody works there. Nobody.

To be sure, there will be the occasional maintenance worker, or a computer systems expert there to tweak the thing, but otherwise it’s really just a big ole’ vending machine.

And truthfully, I think it’s kind of scary. Not quite the Jetsons, but definitely not small town America, either.

I don’t know why, and maybe I’m crazy, but the whole thing really reminds me of the episode of King of the Hill where the Hill family goes to Japan. In a couple of scenes Bobby is seen dancing with a girl at one of those outdoor video-game dancing machines.

Hell, I have no idea what they’re called, or exactly what the association is. But I do think they should set one of those up at the Smartmart as well. (I think Jillian’s already has one.)

Park and White Station could then become our designated corner for techno-gadgetry.

Overall, I’m not sure if I will embrace the Smartmart as I do the U-Scan. I love my “Shell lady” too much to forsake her like that.

But it is certainly kind of odd, intriguing, futuristic and disturbing. It will be even more so if they get the retinal-scan payment option in place, as has been discussed.

And that may be where I draw the line.

If you want to try out the Smartmart process for yourself, you can go to smartmartinc.com, where there is a sample transaction demo. Just click on the “take a tour” prompt, and buy a Coke from nobody.

Weird.

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