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From virtual reality at-home shopping to consumers filing an order via personal card as they enter the store, interactivity will be an important part of grocers' future.

Interactivity will be the focus at the Food Marketing Institute's three-day Advertising/Marketing Executives Conference that starts today in Orlando.

Melissa Stenicka, VP-advertising with San Antonio-based H-E-B Food Stores, is among those slated to speak. In an inter-view before the conference, she said marketers that get involved early in the new technology will help shape its applications.

For example, the Star Re-sponse interactive cable system in the San Antonio area already provides consumers with coupons for products via interactive TV, she said.

"Interactivity is going to become a viable channel of distribution," Ms. Stenicka said. "This is direct mail of the 1990s."

Cable TV has great potential to affect the retail food business, said Donna Young, VP-business development with KBLCOM, a Houston area cable company testing the Star Response system.

Such tests are providing cable executives and advertisers with "an incredibly rich database of life-style" information, not just demographics, she said. Retailers will be able to target specific audiences by incomes, previous purchases and even previous coupon requests made through the system.

"What's going to become more important is not the eyeballs that you reach but getting the target that you want," Ms. Young said.

In KBLCOM's two-way interactive system, viewers can punch numbers on a remote control to retrieve coupons. Currently, the system is receiving up to 100 calls daily from 100,000 people who have the converter box. With couponing "wearing out" and needing improvement, this could be the answer, Ms. Young said.

Interactivity not only allows retailers to better reach consumers, but allows marketers to come away from each transaction with a wealth of data, said Brian Woolf, president of Greenville, S.C.- based consultancy Retail Strategy Center, who was to discuss measured, or electronic, marketing during the conference. Such data will be key to successful marketing in the future, he said.

By learning more about customers' lifestyles and demographics-in specific market-by-market analyses-retailers will better target, serve and retain patrons in addition to improve their profit.

Another buying system under development for interactive use will provide patrons with plastic data cards, akin to a credit card, that they can program at home with the groceries they want to buy. Then they take the card to the grocer, who puts it through a scanner. By the time the patron has completed browsing and shopping for other items, like perishables, those groceries will be waiting.

For retailers, costs could drop as delivery channels change, Mr. Woolf said, noting, "The cost of having a tin shed in Iowa to ship goods from is much cheaper than having an expensive retail store. You have to flex the vehicle to satisfy the customer."

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