Why You Won’t Recognize Your Supermarket in 5 Years
By: Eve Turow
It has to be. Because these days the bricks-and-mortar market is facing stiff online competition. According to market-research company Mintel, 31% of consumers made a grocery purchase online in 2015, up from 19 percent in 2014, logging onto new platforms like Amazon Fresh, GrubMarket, and Instacart. Automated shipping is gaining traction. For example, the delivery app, Rosie, learns purchasing behaviors and anticipates when a user should re-order everyday items like toilet paper and coffee. In due time, it seems, our washing machines will send signals to order more detergent and we’ll have an auto-schedule for air-filters to be added into our cloud-based shopping carts every few months. Then, Alexa—Amazon Echo’s voice technology—will place the orders for us.
With all that automation and convenience around the corner, will there even be a reason to step foot into a supermarket? The answer is definitely not— if we’re talking about the same supermarket you’re familiar with. But tech companies, supermarket chains, and thought-leading visionaries are working to reinvent your trip to the grocery store. To paraphrase the old saying, The Supermarket is dead. Long live the Supermarket.
That’s already the reality in Korea, where grocery chain Tesco launched a virtual grocery store that wallpapered subway corridors with shoppable billboards. Busy commuters wander the “aisles” and order their groceries by scanning QR codes via a phone app while waiting for the train. Similarly, in 2012, Chinese e-commerce site YiHaoDian launched 1,000 virtual supermarkets that could only be seen with the YiHaoDian app. The destinations were tagged via GPS, guiding shoppers to augmented reality buildings where they could scan and shop. There’s upside for retailers (they skip the cost of actually building, stocking, and staffing stores) and shoppers (no need to travel long distances to reach the big supermarket). After all, who says you need to squeeze a tomato to buy one?
But plenty of supermarket visionaries believe that the way forward isn’t virtual—it’s hyper-real. According to a recent survey by Cowen and Company, consumers care more about where food comes from—and what’s in it—than how healthy it is. So innovators are developing ways to help supermarkets tell the story of the food they sell.
The Future Food District, created by Italian design firm Carlo Ratti Associati, displayed how technology and transparency can fuse together at the 2015 Milan Expo. “Our Pavilion at Expo 2015 was a real supermarket, where people could interact with— and buy—products,” said Carlo Ratti, founding partner of Carlo Ratti Associati and Director of the Senseable City Lab at MIT. Inside the pavilion, which was built to resemble a warehouse, over 1,500 food products were displayed on large interactive tables. As people browsed, stats on nutritional content, pesticides, and estimated carbon footprint were displayed on digital screens above. Shoppers at the Expo could use an app to receive product suggestions based on their diet preferences, while the market walls projected the latest shopping statistics like most-purchased items.
“Storytelling means more knowledge. We were very inspired by a novella by Italian writer Italo Calvino, where the character Mr. Palomar enters a ‘fromagerie’ in Paris,” says Mr. Ratti. “Calvino writes: ‘Behind every cheese there is a pasture of a different green under a different sky.’ We hope that tomorrow’s supermarkets will make us feel a bit like Mr. Palomar—with every product able to talk to us.”
But that doesn’t mean supermarkets will be all about telling stories about food from far away. “The point of processing is moving closer to the point of delivery,” says Dr. Matthew Lange, Associate Director of the Knowledge Engineering Initiative for Wireless Health & Wellness at UC Davis. In other words, food won’t just be made local to the supermarket—it will be grown inside the market. From countertop breweries to 3D food printers, the story of our foods will become more transparent.
That goes for fruits and vegetables, too. Increasingly, hydroponic, aeroponic, and aquaponic urban farms are forming relationships with markets to provide customized produce. Some groceries even have their greens grown right on the roof.
“You’re going to see more produce brands,” predicts BrightFarm CEO Paul Lightfoot. “Indoor farms will give supermarkets the chance to differentiate themselves.” By working with farms close by or connected to the market itself, supermarket produce managers—even in urban settings—can go directly to the farmer to ask for a spicier radish or more red leaves in the mixed greens. The highly controlled conditions of hydroponic and aquaponic farming—now rapidly on the rise in the U.S. with the potential to become a $9 billion industry—puts more power in the hands of farmers to create unique produce for grocers.
“We’ve had a loss of flavor,” explains Marc Oshima, Chief Marketing Officer and Co-Founder of AeroFarms, as plants have been selected based on disease and pest resistance instead of taste and nutrient density. Indoor farming will drastically expand the biodiversity of produce found on grocery shelves. “In many ways, the consumer doesn’t even know what he or she is missing anymore.”
The interweaving of farms and supermarkets to the point of purchase will also reconnect consumers with their food in a whole new way.
“It’s going to be even more about community and the personal experience than it is now,” says Tre Musco, President and Chief Creative Officer of Tesser: Big Picture Branding, who investigated the future of grocery for the Food Marketing Institute. “Everyone’s talking about robot this and high-tech that, but it’s really about going in the other direction, more high-touch.”
As more and more food can be ordered online and shipped to us in boxes, supermarkets will become the new vinyl records—a place to, in Musco’s words, “Get back to what’s great about food, tasting things and the pleasure in making food and sharing food with friends and family. The grocery industry will reorient around that.” So hold onto your carts, or phones, or whatever we’ll be using in a few years—it’s time to go shopping.
Read the full article at www.epicurious.com.