How data and sustainability will shape supermarkets of the future

 —  Article by Natasha Stokes
Whole Foods supermarket
Image credit: Shutterstock

From vertical farming to motion-sensitive displays, supermarkets across Europe are embracing new technology that caters to food-savvy, eco-aware consumers.

At a concept store opened by Italian supermarket giant COOP, motion-sensitive screens stretch above the fresh produce and meat. Shoppers can point at any item to view its nutritional facts, its freshness, and its origin. Raising an item brings to life the touch-screen columns that stud the aisles, displaying the item’s allergens, how to dispose of its packaging, and storage recommendations – the sort of detail that might otherwise be gleaned from store staff, who are largely absent from this operation.

“Providing a large amount of information easily and accessibly is a way to improve efficiency – for customers who are increasingly concerned about where their food comes from, and for retailers who want to meet this need,” says Monica Cannalire, National Director, Retail Agency, JLL Italy.

Of the food sold at the 1000-sq-meter store in Milan, 65 percent is produced in a controlled chain where COOP Italy certifies every stage from origin to packaging and display. The remainder is a curated list of big brand products. “The company takes responsibility for communicating the right information to customers,” Cannalire says.

More information wanted

Across Europe, consumers are becoming increasingly interested in the origins of their food – and the ethics of its production.

The Nielsen Global Health and Ingredient-Sentiment Survey found that 66 percent of European respondents worried about the long-term impact of artificial ingredients, while 71 percent wanted to know everything that went into their food. For consumers with particular dietary needs, half did not feel current grocery stores met their needs.

“People are becoming more conscious about whether what they eat is healthy and sustainably produced,” Cannalire says. “When it comes to the food you’re putting in your body or buying for your kids, it’s crucial to have this information.”

The COOP Italy concept store provides an instant means for consumers to find these details, while the same technology allows the company to collect meaningful data on how its customers shop. Company president Marco Pedroni says that the corporation will use its concept store to experiment with technology that can be rolled out to other stores. In the future, that could include a smartphone app that allows a store to recognize customers and offer tailored promotions.

The era of food consciousness

In Germany, a key market for sustainable and ethical food outlets, Berlin’s Metro supermarket has implemented in-store “vertical farms”, where herbs and leafy greens grow in modular boxes, via soil-free hydroponic methods and under LED lights that mimic sunlight. Customers can pick these directly, eliminating the eco-unfriendly byproducts of transport while taking home vegetables as fresh as possible.

Berlin is also home to the world’s first zero-waste supermarket, Original Unverpakt. Products such as fruits and grains can be scooped from bulk bins into customers’ own, reusable containers, relieving customers – and landfills – of packaging waste, and reducing the likelihood of over-buying food that ends up being tossed. Non-food items including shampoo and milk can similarly be dispensed from refillable vats.

“It really looks like a new form of grocery store,” Cannalire says. “There is a trend for people to be more aware about what they eat and where it comes from, whether that’s for health, ethical, or lifestyle reasons, and it’s taking off across Europe.”

That’s reflected in the slow rise of earth-conscious retail brands, such as Veganz, an e-tailer of vegan foods and chain of “animal cruelty-free shops” in Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria and soon, Italy. The shops also offer vegan cooking classes to ease its customers into a plant-based lifestyle.

Convergence of companies

The power of the consumer dollar – and euro, yuan and pound – means the expectations of customers can create a market niche. Along with the continental shift towards more conscious food consumption, the growing sophistication of retail technology such as self-checkout tills or in-store Wi-Fi means that the expectation of a shopping experience is changing too.

Yet the story is not as straightforward as a retailer responding to a perceived customer desire. “We as consumers can do our share – we can buy or not buy something to influence sales and the future of a particular concept,” Cannalire says. “But it’s also up to the investors who understand that this is the moment and make it possible, whether by providing the space or financial backing necessary for new concepts to take off.”

AXA Investment Managers, the landlord of the COOP in Milan is so far one of a few forward-thinking investors to spot the opportunity. Down the line, Cannalire believes that many more supermarkets – buttressed by savvy investors – will utilize interactive technology to prioritize the needs of an expanding demographic of ingredient-savvy, eco-aware consumers, instead of pushing products en masse to an undifferentiated audience.

“We are opening our eyes to the way we consume,” Cannalire says, “and we are at a significant moment where big players are also believing in a better future.”

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