Reimagining the Supermarket

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Note: The following has been excerpted from “How We Eat, the Brave New World of Food and Drink.” Copyright © 2022 by Peckshee, LLC.

All good businesses gaze into their crystal ball in an attempt to arrive at the future an hour or two before everyone else. In Italy, “The Supermarket of the Future” has existed for some time. It was the name of a project that the design firm Carlo Ratti Associati created in 2015 for the Milan World Expo. The experimental store was part of a “future food district pavilion” sponsored by Coop Italia, the country’s largest supermarket chain. It looked like a cross between an Apple store in Stockholm and the least cluttered, most elegant grocery you’ll ever see. Of course, it held only 6,000 items, whereas the average American supermarket holds around 30,000. The most striking design elements were giant mirrors hanging at an angle over the produce displays. When shoppers stood there, information about the fruits and vegetables appeared on the mirrors like magic, visible only to the customer.

What if the store was like playing a videogame? You have a joystick and you’re traveling virtually through the whole store. Maybe videogame designers should be designing online supermarkets.

Dream Big

Grocery hasn’t changed in one hundred years. You still have to go a location to shop in-store. Next-gen consumers can get pretty creative when asked to dream big about the ideal supermarket for the future. So, if you thought about how you want the supermarket of the future to work, what would you imagine? Here are a few fanciful ideas.

The Non-Supermarket

An imaginary supermarket of the future is me sitting at home. I don’t even have to get up to check what’s in the refrigerator. My refrigerator is telling me what we have in inventory and what we need. But I will need some way to impulse buy when I want to try something new.

The Supermarket as Experience

As kids, remember going to grocery stores with parents as a fun thing, a learning experience? Welcome to a different reality; there are no kids going to the grocery store, no teenagers tagging along. They discover what they want from all kinds of external influences, digital, friends, films – pop culture references. Supermarkets will need to become digital marketing machines to ensure awareness and curiosity.

The Supermarket Depot

At bus stops in Brazil, there are often farmers markets where all the fresh produce is pre-bagged. So, you can walk through, pick up the bags of whatever you want with clearly marked prices to do your shopping en route to your destination. In a similar vein, Whole Foods’ kiosk at Kennedy Airport, which is feeding travelers something now is also selling them on the idea of buying it later in their neighborhood.

The Supermarket as Farmers Market

Rebuild the supermarket so it’s like a farmers’ market, where there’s an outer circle of stands with fruit and vegetables, and shoppers walk on the inside of the circle. The center aisle groceries—the pasta, ketchup, canned beans, paper towels, cat food—would be someplace else entirely. It looks like an Amazon warehouse from the outside. But you enter into a stage set with fake sun and rain to replicate a real outdoor market.

The Supermarket as Discovery

In every grocery visit there’s typically five percent discovery. In an online food shopping model, how does discovery and innovation happen? If nobody’s discovering new things, then there’s no motivation for companies to innovate. A discovery app can bridge the gap to inspire consumers with new products, reformulated products and a reintroduction to nostalgic products. Stores can also consider sampling outside the grocery store, which is that’s a more effective way to get you to try something new than just sticking it on the shelf and hoping you see it.

The Supermarket as Drive-Through

Imagine you get out of your car and it then goes on a conveyor belt and gets loaded with all the staples you need while you walk alongside and examine fresh food and produce, and meat, dairy, eggs, and fish. It’s like a car wash. When you get your car back it’s been filled with all the groceries from the center aisles, while you’ve been shopping the products from the store’s perimeter. And then imagine if you could pick up your dry cleaning and pharmacy order all in one conveyer belt visit.

The Supermarket as Videogame

What if the store was like playing a videogame? You have a joystick and you’re traveling virtually through the whole store. Maybe video game designers should be designing online supermarkets.

Speedbumps to the Future

There’s a shift in consumption today from getting customers to find the product to figuring a way for the product to find them. Online grocery has some real drawbacks in terms of product selection and quality. You have no control over the freshness and state of fresh produce that is picked for you. It also sets the tone for in-store shopping. For example, in Whole Foods during the non-busy hours, half the people are store runners—employees running around filling online orders moving at full speed, creating a frantic in-store environment. And there are issues with delivery if the order is dropped and something breaks. The downside to online shopping is that there’s no virtual replication of the aisle. So, a lot of the triggers customers rely on journeying through the actual store may never make it onto the list.

The Supermarket of the Future

The idea of a narrative—that everything we eat has a rich backstory and we are determined to know it—is one of the biggest forces pulling us into the future of food. Digital technology and social media are making it possible. As Ratti explains, “We use technology to recreate an old market; after all, traditional markets were places for selling and purchasing but also arenas of interaction and exchange between people.” He adds, supermarkets, have prioritized function over social interaction, championing vertical shelving as an efficient method of dense product storage.

The future supermarket could once again become a space of social interaction and cultural exchange, thanks to new technologies. For example, a peer-to-peer platform could share information about the food products in real time. “I believe that physical experiences will remain,” Ratti says, “but we will see a bifurcation in the way we shop. On the one hand, we will increasingly use digital services (ideally, mobile apps) to purchase down-to-earth products—such as toilet paper, laundry soap, milk, and so on. Shout out to Alexa or Siri and they will constantly replenish your supply of staples. This will happen from home, and it will be done as quickly as possible, perhaps just by saying a few words to Alexa or Siri.

“On the other hand, 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 and smell. The store, in turn, can become increasingly focused on providing us with unique experiences. It is also what we tried to do with the Future Food District, imagining new experiences around products. In this case, people could spend more time if they want, but also could do shopping very quickly if they prefer so! In the digital era, the design of the physical supermarkets will be more vital than ever in crafting a sensory spectacle.”

I’m not convinced that Ratti’s rarified vision of the future store will ever catch on, but one thing is undeniable: the space in Ratti’s design is beautiful. But what will all this mean for the rest of the world? The very idea of a “supermarket of the future” is intriguing to those of us who study shopping, but also to shoppers themselves. Maybe that’s because we’re all plain bored by the supermarket of the present, which is an awful lot like the supermarket of the past.

When we opened an Envirosell office in Milan, we too were involved in an effort to reimagine supermarkets on behalf of a client, GS, the Italian retail giant. The concept was a break with tradition: instead of organizing the foods on display in the traditional way, we grouped them by how people consume them. So, for example, instead of coffee here and milk back there and breads over at the bakery, there was a “breakfast” section—prima colazione — with all those foods displayed together. Makes a certain kind of sense, right? And it gives us a new way to approach an old, tiresome chore.

The store opened with great fanfare and high hopes. It looked beautiful and innovative. But sales fell. You can sell furniture that way— lamps with chairs and rugs with window treatments. Ikea’s signature move is selling entire rooms, not just individual pieces in precisely that user-friendly way. Clothing stores assemble entire outfits, from hat to shoes, on a mannequin. But as it turns out, we don’t buy groceries that way.

I think people are naturally suspicious of too much innovation where food is concerned. Will the Italian reinvention of the supermarket lead us all into the future of food shopping? Time will tell. My question is this: When people consistently say they are pressed for time and want to spend less of it shopping for food, will they fall in love with stores that offer experiences instead of efficiencies? Or do we want both? Don’t we always?

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