Experience versus substance – do we need supermarkets of the future?
Business Management

Experience versus substance – do we need supermarkets of the future?

Not since Clarence Saunders’ first Piggly Wiggly self-service shop in Memphis, Tennessee has the high-street food retail industry witnessed such a shift in thinking. Professor Carlo Ratti’s Supermarket of the Future, a collaboration with Italian food chain Coop Italia and services firm Avanade, opened its doors at the end of last year in the Bicocca Village shopping centre in the north of Milan, Italy. With its neat rows of produce and the clean and spacious layout, the supermarket seems to have all the ‘wow’ factor necessary to get heads turning and shoppers browsing.

It first trialled at Expo Milano in 2015 with robot arms serving customers and Microsoft’s Kinect gesture control technology combining with interactive tables and touch-screen vertical shelving to deliver detailed product information. Wave your hand over some apples and the screen reacts, delivering details of the product’s origins, nutritional facts, the presence of allergens, waste disposal instructions, correlated products and promotions.

Supermarkets, on the whole have not changed much since the 1950s. The shopping concept is still the same and although in some regions food labelling has improved to reveal origins and some nutritional information, the whole experience is still, well, a bit of a trolley dash. Ratti, who is also director of MIT’s Senseable City Lab, naturally believes there is a will to change, a hunger for something different.

He cites a review from VICE after the initial Expo Milano airing of the future supermarket concept.

“Getting groceries was never really about the shopping experience for me, it was simply an instrumental act of survival: in, food, out. But not this time. If I had the money, I would spend hours inside Coop and buy everything it has to offer, from the wine to the oranges packaged right in front of you by robots with mechanical hands.”

 

Grocery shopping as experience, not chore

“I like this review,” Ratti says. “I see a blossoming of ‘experiential’ shopping. Think about choosing fresh food produce: we will always enjoy going to a physical store where we can touch, smell, et cetera. The store, in turn, can become increasingly focused on providing us with unique experiences. Somehow we might say that the design of experiential supermarkets has never been as important as now. Even if high-tech retailing is becoming widespread, this is far from equating with the demise of the physical stores.”

But underlying Ratti’s approach is the idea of provenance. Can, and should, supermarkets provide more information on product origins but also help consumers understand more about nutritional values and potential allergens? Of course they should, and Ratti’s approach to make this more achievable is to be applauded. Getting supply chains on board may prove a little trickier but if supermarkets start demanding it, then maybe it will happen. Labelling technology is more affordable and viable now, as are cloud-based infrastructures and data management and analysis systems that can enable this.

Does this mean supermarkets could evolve, link with the wider community and actually actuate the environment?

“Yes! Information again is crucial towards this goal,” says Ratti. “Increased food knowledge can both encourage more ‘aware’ consumption and create new interactions between users and producers. Can we imagine a future supermarket as a place of exchange, open to all? In fact, in the tradition of Italian cooperatives, some areas of our Future Food District at Milan World Expo in 2015 were dedicated to producers and consumers who can use the supermarket as a free-trade area. It was a transposition of peer-to-peer dynamics into the realm of food.”

Certainly it’s possible to see how increased consumer/supermarket interaction could be a catalyst. And yet, at the back of the mind is this nagging doubt still. While Coop Italia is perhaps to be admired for its willingness to experiment, too many of the large supermarket chains across the world are hell-bent on maintaining the status quo - pile ‘em high and flog ‘em cheap. 

Interestingly, Nielsen and the Food Marketing Institute released a report last month outlining some key findings from its research into the impact of digitally engaged shoppers on the food retail industry. As you’d expect, younger people are going to drive a bit of change here in relation to digital technologies and shopping. Online grocery shopping is expected to grow significantly anyway, according to the report and demand will force supermarkets to experiment with new models and ideas.

 

Go Amazon, go

Perhaps an obvious place to look for inspiration is Amazon.

It’s nailed online selling better than anyone and its move into high-street shopping is, although surprising, tinged with a start-up arrogance. Its supermarket of the future proposition is a little different from Ratti’s. Amazon Go on 7th Avenue in Seattle, is an 1,800 square feet retail store that has been four years in the making. The company has been trialling a range of sensor technologies to improve the browsing and buying experience but also how to restock shelves and manage the back end. Unsurprisingly, it has focussed on a virtual shopping list and wireless payment system via its mobile app, under the banner ‘Just Walk Out Shopping’ but the headline grabber is the idea that robots will be involved.

Reports that only three humans will work in the store have been denied by Amazon. “We have no plans to build such a store and their [The New York Post] story is incorrect,” said the UK Amazon press office. On Twitter, CEO Jeff Bezos suggested the report’s source has “mixed up their meds”.

But despite the protestations, a level of automation seems almost inevitable. For a company that can’t stop talking about drones, it’s hard to imagine that the Amazon Go stores (there will inevitably be more if this is successful) won’t have robots in some form. What we do know is that they won’t have people manning the tills.

What both Amazon Go and Coop Italia have in common is access to customer data, buying patterns and trends. This sort of analysis is not unusual in retail today, although some companies do it better than others, either through web site data or through customer loyalty cards. Both companies are mixing physical and virtual experiences and to a large extent, experimenting with consumers to see what works in the quest for seamless shopping experiences.

Not for the first time, Amazon has stuck its neck out. David Rosen, digital transformation technologist and strategist at Tibco Software, says this is true to form. Amazon “understands the way people shop and the friction points that make shopping hard,” he says. “Amazon has a total willingness to experiment and also commit to cross-channel and device synergies.”

 

The real world

But as much as its investment in bricks and mortar is a departure from its core business, we shouldn’t get too carried away. There are no guarantees it will work just because it’s Amazon. By stepping into the real world, it opens itself up to massive competition in a market where price is a major driver, at least for the majority of people. You only have to look at the rapid growth of German stores Aldi and Lidl to realise that. Can technology really make a difference? Won’t other stores just adopt the same ‘Just Walk Out’ principle once it’s been proven and is more cost-effective to install, thus undermining Amazon’s USP?

The Italians have an excellent phrase - C’entra come i cavoli a merenda – it literally means, ‘it fits like cabbage for an afternoon snack’, meaning something doesn’t fit, it’s inappropriate. Could this be applied to supermarket of the future? Is this a case of tech getting ahead of itself? And, in economically challenging times, do people really care?

For Ratti it comes down to necessity, the idea that in the future, food sustainability will be an even bigger issue. People will have to care.

“I think people in many countries, and not just Italy, are asking for more and more information about the food origins and properties,” says Ratti. “I think this is indeed driven by a desire for healthier, more sustainable lifestyle choices. But there could be also a more general explanation: the internet has made us accustomed to having information at our fingertips, but this still doesn’t happen in a physical place such as a supermarket. As designers, I think we must help address this last point.”  

Ratti is now exploring other retail dimensions, such as in-supermarket production, designing a pavilion where people can engage with digitally-augmented farming and grow their own food on-site.

“It is a project which pairs sustainable agricultural practices with online data collection, paving the way for a new type of collaborative, in-store cultivation system in which anyone can become an organic food producer,” he says.

“Visitors will enter the “Area del Futuro” and head to a vast indoor hydroponic vegetable garden. Here, anybody can choose to plant seeds in a hydroponic tank, and then monitor their growth remotely. Once a person plants a seed in the hydroponic farm, an Internet-of-Things device will match his or her profile with that of the corresponding plant. Using a special mobile app, the visitor can then track the state of the plant’s biologic data, its level of growth, and even share it on social media. When the vegetable is finally ripe, the visitor can collect it from the pavilion to be eaten or given away.”

Grow your own, in other words. Who needs supermarkets anyway?

 

Also read:
The future of retail: AI and personalisation

 

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Marc Ambasna-Jones

Marc Ambasna-Jones is a UK-based freelance writer and media consultant and has been writing about business and technology since 1989.

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