I DONT KNOW WHETHER OR NOT it’s a sign that the festive season is approaching, but these past few weeks I seem to have been spending most of my social hours at dinner parties. Now, to be honest with you I don’t particularly care for dinner parties. I’m not exactly renowned for my ability to make small talk at the best of times – ask me out at the end of a tiring work day and my natural instinct is to be positively taciturn! You can probably guess that most of these invites come because of her Ladyship, who positively revels in the ‘pass the After Eights’ scene. And because I’m a truly subservient, henpecked husband, I don’t really have much choice in the matter!

AT LEAST I HAVE PICKED UP one way to make the evening passably bearable. Find someone who you think might be interesting, keep feeding him/her with enough open ended questions and with a bit of luck you can go for a couple of hours without having to speak too much. So there I was the other night at such a soirée, and I picked out someone who hired out marquees for a living. After the usual preliminary niceties I was getting worried that his conversation was tailing off so I asked him if there were any new developments in his business.

WOW, I WAS IMMEDIATELY SPIRITED OFF to his magical world of transponders. For those of you technophobes out there who, like me, thought he was talking about robot toys for boys, let me put you straight (and for those of you who think this is old hat I apologise). Transponders are little microchip things that not only store information but also give out information back if asked correctly. This chap was about to invest nearly £100,000 in these little devils, so it was no mere whim. And how was his business going to benefit?

WELL, APART FROM JUST HIRING OUT marquees he also hires out tables, chairs, crockery, glasses, tablecloths and serviettes. It turns out he was having transponders sewn onto all his table linen. The idea is that before he despatches the linen out to a hirer he can programme the transponders with all the hirer’s details. When the items are returned he just reads the transponders’ details and, hey presto, he has instant stock control and billing for shortages. But the really clever part was that all this information could be programmed onto the transponders, and received back from them, while all the items were in cardboard boxes. There was no need to physically handle the linen to scan the info – the complete sealed box passed a magic eye and all the info was transmitted to his back computer.

SO APART FROM POSSIBLY being vaguely interesting to some of you ‘Tomorrow’s World’ types, what is the relevance of all this to the forecourt trade? The relevance is that apparently many of the major multiples, including Tesco so rumour has it, are busy experimenting to see how transponders could improve their efficiency. The holy grail for a supermarket, after all, would be a system that enabled a whole trolley load of goods to be ‘scanned’ without needing to employ a cashier and without the bottleneck of goods having to be offloaded and then re-packed back into a trolley. What’s one of the biggest complaints about hypermarket shopping? The time it takes to get through the checkout. A system that would eliminate that and slash your wage bill deserves some investigation. Now throw in the ability to programme ‘best before dates’ so that dated stock identified itself on the shelf without having to pick up and examine every item and you can see we are talking major efficiencies.

THE MAJOR DRAWBACK at the moment is that the transponders cost approximately 80p each, but if the trials prove successful I can see huge pressure being exerted on manufacturers to include a transponder on every pack just as they currently print a barcode. If that happens then the transponder costs will plummet. The people who are driving our margins down through economies of scale might just be about to turn the screws even more. I told you I loved dinner parties!