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The way the people at Prodigy Services Co. see it, the shopping cart may become a cultural artifact. In fact, shopping as we currently know it - the driving around looking for a parking space, the hassle of actually walking from one store to another at the mall - could be a thing of the past.

In Prodigy's vision of the near future, American families will do all their shopping, including their grocery shopping, by computer in the comfort of their own homes. They'll also do their banking by computer. And much of their information gathering, information sharing and leisure-time planning.Prodigy, a joint venture between IBM and Sears, is the latest addition to what the industry calls "home videotex." With a home computer, the proper software, a modem and a telephone, consumers now have access, electronically, to information and services.

There are several general-interest on-line services available nationwide, the most successful being CompuServe, GEnie, American People/Link and Prodigy. There are also home on-line services offered by several regional phone companies as well as on-line services provided by newspapers.

The on-line services range from the vital to the mundane. Depending on the software, you can find out today's headlines, tomorrow's weather and yesterday's soap opera highlights. You can order shoes from J.C. Penney and your groceries from a local supermarket, play video games, find out the latest ski conditions, make plane reservations, buy and sell stocks and "talk" to anyone else in the United States who has the same on-line program.

The owners of Prodigy and CompuServe and the other videotex services are optimistic that people will realize, once they get their hands on a home videotex service, that they can't live without it.

Prodigy, in fact, is even offering a free software "start-up kit" until April 30 in the hope of getting you hooked. (Call 1-800-PRODIGY, extension 206. Prodigy is compatible with IBM and Apple Macintosh computers with one megabyte of RAM. You will also need a modem.)

Whether Americans are born to shop by computer, and whether they'll be impressed enough to use a home videotex service after the novelty wears off, is anybody's guess at this point.

Chris Elwell, editor of the Information Industry Bulletin in Stamford, Conn., says that as of Jan. 1, about 1 million households had signed up for one of the four main general-interest on-line services (whether all those households continued with the service beyond the initial sign-up is not reflected in the figures).

Elwell himself is a computer lover - the kind of guy who, instead of saying we're having a phone conversation, says we're engaged in "audiotex." He is fond of electronic databases, but he isn't sure if there will be one in every family room in the future.

"Do my parents use it? No. Does my wife use it? No," he admits.

Several videotex services - the Times Mirror Co.'s, for example - have already folded after losing millions of dollars.

Prodigy hopes that its flat rate of $9.95 a month for unlimited usage, rather than the usual videotex practice of charging users by the hour, will be a selling point. Prodigy plans to make up for these smaller revenues by selling ads, which run on the bottom of the computer screen.

Although Prodigy has been available in some parts of the United States for about 15 months, it was introduced to the Salt Lake area just last week, thereby moving us to "the forefront of the Information Age," according to a Prodigy press release.

Prodigy has yet to sign up a local supermarket chain here, but when they do, Salt Lakers will be able to buy everything from apples to yo-yos by computer.

In Denver, the King Sooper stores charge a $9 delivery fee for computer-ordered groceries. Shoppers also have the option of picking up their order, already boxed, at the store at no additional charge.

Shopping by computer will be a necessity, say the folks at Prodigy, because there will soon be too few "service providers" to keep up with the needs of baby boomers.