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M&S to sell chips with everything

M&S store
M&S: Chips with everything?  

CNN's Graham Jones

LONDON, England (CNN) -- The new chief executive of British middle-market retailers Marks & Spencer is looking to the future with a "chips with everything" strategy.

Roger Holmes, 42, who becomes CEO in a week's time, has pinpointed emerging technology as the next step for the store group which has clawed its way back into fashion in Britain after some troubled times.

"I really want to grasp the technological advances," says Holmes, who takes over from Belgian Luc Vandevelde, 51, the man credited with bringing the M&S revival.

Among Holmes's plans to use microchips in clothes and food trays as the cost comes down is the "anti-colour clash" chip which will tell shoppers if a new garment will match their existing clothes.

Once they have got an item home a chip would be able to tell customers if they had put it on the correct washing cycle.

For food shoppers, Holmes, former head of M&S retail operations, is looking to microchips that can alert staff to items that have passed their sell-by date.

"All those things were felt until relatively recently a very, very long way off but it has got to the point where we are now needing to trial and develop some of these things," Holmes told The Times newspaper.

M&S confirmed they were working on expanding microchip technology.

"We have a 'brains trust' of around 80 of the best innovators in the world working on new ideas and taking them forward to enable Marks and Spencer to remain a lead edge innovator on the high street," a company spokeswoman said.

The firm pointed to a history of innovation -- including introducing nylon in 1952 and being one of the first on the high street, in the 1970s, to introduce Lycra -- which it now uses more than any other high street retailer.

"Current innovation," the spokeswoman said, included washable dinner suits, to be available for Christmas, fresh-feet socks to neutralise foot odour, women's "Wonder Bum" tights and non-polish shoes.

Vandevelde is credited with reviving the UK store group's fortunes
Vandevelde is credited with reviving the UK store group's fortunes  

Holmes, whose salary will increase from 450,000 ($680,000) to 600,000 ($912,000) when he starts his new job, says he wants to move the M&S "from a product focus to a total experience or lifestyle focus."

He would not comment on the likely cost of developing new technologies.

Kate Ancketill, managing director of innovation consultants GDR Creative Intelligence, told CNN that retailing was increasingly using cutting-edge technology -- one growth area for stores being "sonic branding" for stores.

"Sonic logos will soon be incorporated into packaging, where microchips release a short burst of branded noise upon opening," she says. "Next customer please dividers on checkouts and freezer doors could be next.

"Sonic shower technology now exists where you can hear music within a defined space of a few metres, but be unable to hear it if you step outside of its invisible field."

Another expanding area, Ancketill says, is olfactory branding.

"New varnishes can carry smells released only when the pack is handled, male pheromones have been used in video stores at night to encourage the renting of adult videos, and devices are currently being prototyped which will diffuse smells over the Internet," she says.

New York's PRADA store already uses some of the technology planned by M&S.

In its dressing rooms are "smart closets" which scan the individual electronic chip-based clothing tags, using embedded RF antennae, and send the garment information to an interactive touch screen in the cubicle.

The customer can then use the screen to select other sizes, colours or fabrics. The screen also displays video footage of the garment being worn on the PRADA catwalk.

Says Ancketill: "Intelligent fibres have been used to develop a shirt which rolls up its own sleeves when the wearer gets too warm. The fabric is woven from fibres of nitinol, a shape-memory alloy, mixed with nylon. The sleeve fabric is programmed to contract as soon as the room temperature rises."

Some of the futuristic technology seen in Tom Cruise's recent film Minority Report is already in use in shopping malls and airports.

Infrared beacon systems in shopping centres can personalise a shoppers visit to a shopping centre, department store on airport. Handheld wireless devices can be activated by a loyalty card which holds information about individual shopping habits.

As shoppers are tracked throughout the space via the infrared beacons, they are alerted to special offers and sales promotions. The system is already on trial in the United States.


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