Modern Technologies and Food Purchasing: Guest Post by Dr. Mike Boland

A Brief History of Modern Food Purchasing

The 1950s saw a disruptive change in the way we purchase our food: until then, we relied on small local grocery stores, butchers and greengrocers, where the grocer or butcher fetched food items on request. Items could also be pre-ordered by phone and either collected from the store or delivered to the home, often by a boy on a bicycle. The key to the disruption was allowing customers direct access to the food stores with checkouts at the door. Thus was invented the modern supermarket, which sold all kinds of food, and the selection of food items passed directly into the hands of the customer with little or no intervention from the retailer. This inevitably led to a consolidation of the food retail industry and an almost total loss of the service aspect of the industry. The Future of Food Purchasing

The Future of Food Purchasing

Today, we are on the verge of a similarly disruptive change: Online ordering of almost everything has taken over from local retail outlets. Probably the most dramatic examples are in books and music – downloads are the rule and local purchase the exception. Food has been slower to follow, but we are on the edge of a massive change to online purchase, particularly of packaged and processed foods. Models developed by Amazon, originally for books, are being adapted for use with food items, by Amazon itself and by other players; and, as an example, the British company Ocado has developed a highly automated, completely online system for grocery retail and delivery in Andover in the UK (https://www.reuters.com/article/us-ocado-technology/ocado-courts-global-food-retailers-with-robot-army-idUSKBN1IA2BJ).  It is ironic that this change will lead to the modern equivalent of the telephone order, followed by pick-up or delivery, that was commonplace in the 1950s.

Online shopping from supermarkets has been available for nearly 20 years, but initial uptake has been slow. It generally worked by having people employed as “shoppers” who put together the order – much as in the days of the local grocer – and the order could be delivered or picked up from a ‘pickup point’. This is now changing, using the robotic systems developed by Amazon and others (notably Ocado in the UK), whereby selections are put together and checked out in large, robotically operated warehouses, ready for delivery. It is likely that in urban areas an Uber-type grocery delivery system will develop quickly (one example, Instacart, is already in operation in parts of the US and Canada), and robot delivery, including delivery using drones, is already being trialed (for example by Amazon Prime Air). This model will not work as easily for some fresh foods because of variability in fresh foods and difficulties in labelling and in handling and protection, but this can be managed in other ways, and with the trend towards purchase of fresh foods at local markets, may be a separate consideration.

What will Online Purchasing Look Like?

Variants of online grocery shopping abound. Virtual supermarkets can be as simple as displays on the wall of a subway station with barcodes that can be read by a smartphone app (such displays have been present in South Korea for many years and can be found in some airports), through to full virtual reality supermarkets.

Virtual Reality (VR) enables users to feel like they are among the shop aisles without having to travel. VR-based supermarket and retail stores were considered by many as the logical successor to online shopping. Ecommerce and retail giants like Alibaba (e.g. Buy+), eBay and IKEA have trialed various VR options and a Tesco version has been demonstrated (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=08S86X_5Crs).  A few VR-based supermarkets have started operating in the last few years (e.g. a Tesco store in Berlin). However, the uptake of VR for shopping seems to have stagnated after the initial hype. Virtual shopping (based on QR code scans), checkout-less shop (e.g. Amazon Go) and on-demand grocery delivery (e.g. Instacart) seem to have supplanted VR.

Augmented reality (AR) blends the virtual and the real world and reconciles e-commerce with bricks & mortar stores. It facilitates the implementation of smart, interactive supermarkets, enabling the shoppers to see real-time information (product attributes, carbon footprint information, product reviews etc.) as they move around a store. Food shopping typically involves quick decision-making. An AR-based system can help someone shop according to their dietary requirements through rapid, accurate associations between food items and dietary recommendations.

There are AR-assisted smartphone apps for real-time, customized recommendations of healthy products, highlighting products to avoid, and identifying suitable alternative products, for various types of health concerns and general caloric intake. There are also operational supermarkets that use interactive tables and shelves to display augmented labels (nutritional value, presence of allergens, waste disposal instructions etc.) on screens suspended above when a customer inspects a product.

The Connected Kitchen

A smart kitchen (also known as a connected kitchen) aims to perform a variety of tasks, including ingredient recognition and grocery ordering. Based on inventory level and consumption, modules such as smart fridges can produce shopping lists and can even perform automated (online) orders (https://www.samsung.com/us/explore/family-hub-refrigerator/overview/), and waste bins can scan labels and automatically re-order. This will have the effect of locking in purchasing patterns and brand preferences.

Purchasing of food is on the cusp of change and it is important that New Zealand food producers and manufacturers get on board – the value chain and the supply chain are changing!

For more about food and the digital age, please see: http://www.riddet.ac.nz/sites/default/files/content/Foods%20in%20a%20Digital%20World_web.pdf

Dr Mike Boland is a Principal Scientist at the Riddet Institute and was elected a Fellow of the New Zealand Institute of Chemistry in 2006 and a Fellow of the New Zealand Institute of Food Science and Technology in 2014.