Supermarket of the future

An image of fruit and vegetables in a supermarket

The supermarket is one of the most ubiquitous sights in the Western world. Seemingly immune to the decline of the High Street, supermarket brands go from strength; Walmart is the largest company in the world by revenue1 while Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Morrison all rank among the world’s largest companies2.

There is a litany of reasons – both positive and harmful – that have resulted in this dominance and whichever brand dominates the high street, the supermarket of the future will surely be different.

There have been numerous attempts to lead this change from the almost universal supermarket practices.

These attempts include, but are not limited to:

A digital-first approach hopes to make the physical supermarket easier to use; Amazon are trialling the Amazon Go supermarket which boasts no checkouts. Meanwhile a health focus looks at ways of empowering shoppers to make more informed food choices – as well as injecting a social element to the experience.

Dr Ian PearsonFuturist Dr Ian Pearson

We sat down with Dr Ian Pearson, renowned futurist, author and speaker to discuss the different approaches to the future of grocery shopping.

Amazon has been the most significant innovator in grocery shopping as it attempts to bring its own irresistible brand of availability to the pantry. Amazon Fresh has rolled out in several countries and the Amazon Go supermarket has generated new headlines for its innovative approach to combining the online ease with the in-person ability to collect and gauge freshness.

Radio, not the next wave?

This concept, allowing customers to simply pick items off the shelf and being automatically charged, is viable but still some way off, says Dr Pearson:

“It’s been 15 years since [using Radio-frequency identification (RFID)] was an idea in the lab, it’s not a new one and there’s been a hell of a lot of attempts to make it work. This is not a new technology by any means, we’ve had RFID for a very long time now.”

Looking at the history of patents using either the terms ‘RFID’ or ‘Radio-frequency identification’, it’s clear the development is at least two decades old:

History of RFID patentsSource: PatSnap

Dr Pearson says several intrinsic problems – both with the technology and the shoppers - have prevented the technology from wide adoption:

“There’s a number of reasons why [RFID] doesn’t work in practice. You take something off a shelf and have a look at it but then you might put it back on the shelf or on a random shelf elsewhere. You have to determine when you don’t get charged and avoid situations like minibars where you get charged as soon as you take it out of the fridge and just look at it, even if you put it back it still charges you for it.

“It really severely limits the things you can do unless you’ve got extremely honest shoppers. You’ve also got to have an extremely reliable packaging system which never prints the RFID tags wrongly so I’m not sure it’s ready for market any time soon.

“RFID is the wrong solution really, anything that relies on a radio signal getting through isn’t really going to work very well.”

"Anything that relies on a radio signal getting through isn’t going to work very well"

Struggling to deliver food to more remote places has resulted in online grocery shopping remaining a preserve for large town and city dwellers. Dr Pearson says the solution to this could be offering food ‘part-made’ which, in turn, could lead to further solutions to distribution – especially with 3D printing:

“It’s possible to do a halfway stage for an awful lot of production where you can make say for example part-baked bread in the supermarket and finish them off in your own oven.

“There’s quite a lot of products that you could do that with and that’ll become more popular because with 3D printers eventually making their way into the kitchen, we’re likely to see a cottage industry springing up with people making cakes and things like that. They can buy half-finished products, finish them off themselves and then ship them locally.”

An image of aisles in a supermarket

Shop 'til you drop, virtually

The future of the supermarket is digital however, but not with RFID. Dr Pearson predicts augmented reality will offer the true opportunities for supermarkets to grow in the 21st century:

“With technology like augmented reality supermarkets can use the same aisles to sell stock that isn’t even in the shop. Imagine going through Tesco’s to buy your routine everyday shopping and then you go through the same aisles again and you can buy stuff that isn’t actually there.

“Everything you see on the shelf is just virtual but when you take that virtual thing off the shelf and put it in your virtual basket, what actually happens it gets delivered to you by the normal home delivery system.

“So you can do a dual shop, you can do a regular shop and get the things you want to take home right now – that’ll include the fresh produce because you want to get it yourself – and other stuff like cans or other things that you might not want to buy now like ice cream you can get that delivered later.

“You might buy physically and others you might buy virtually – the augmented reality layers allow you to do that.”

Look into the eyes, the eyes

As well as providing the possibility for increasing choices for consumers, advanced technologies will also provide for more accurate recommendations – a capability currently limited to online, and even then one that elicits derision as often as it succeeds.

“The new Galileo system is much more precise than GPS and it allows for accuracy down to a few centimetres so you could use that for positioning things on shelves so that makes a pretty good internal positioning system while in-store beacons provide for ultra-high precision positioning.

“Way back in the 90s we identified about 25 different ways of doing high accuracy positioning and it really is just a matter of developing the technologies to see which ones can be mass produced most cheaply.

“We will see urban positioning systems and building positioning systems coming into the market which get you right down to millimetre or even sub-millimetre positioning in terms of location. This means when supermarkets are tracking your eye gaze they’ll know exactly which part of a food label you’re looking at and that allows all sorts of new services.

“Every time you make the precision more accurate there’s a whole stack of extra things you can do.

“If you just know which aisle you’re in or which part of the shelf you’re looking at, you can do a lot more; if you know which label or what part of the label you’re looking at you can do even more.

“There’s no limit to how useful the extra precision on positioning becomes, especially when you’ve got the augmented reality in your face too.”

No more middle man?

The success of the supermarket and its convenience has coincided – some would say caused – the prevalence in unhealthy foods and the subsequent rise in obesity. But with attitudes changing and growing governmental efforts towards healthier, fresher foods, the successful supermarkets of the future will reflect this change.

Architect and designer Carlo Ratti demonstrated his vision for a healthier, technologically enhanced supermarket at the Expo Milan in 2015. The design used Microsoft Kinect cameras and monitors positioned over the shelves to provide nutritional information as well as details such as the carbon footprint involved in production.

As well as the nutritional aspect of grocery shopping, Ratti’s design also hopes to revive a social element of grocery shopping, an element Dr Pearson says supermarkets have been sore to lose:

“Friday evening in Tesco was the clearing house for dating. People would pretend to have a problem with an aubergine – you know what is it, how do you cook it – and ask the nice attractive young lady beside you. Psychologists know that asking for assistance is one of the classic ways for building a relationship, for breaking the ice – it’s the oldest trick in the book and for a long-time Tesco’s and all the other supermarkets relied on the Friday evening for extra custom.”

Ratti’s supermarket accounts for this by using smaller shelves, allowing customers to see over them into the next aisle in the hope that the increased potential for eye contact will lead to conversations between customers.

"We'll bypass supermarkets more and more"

Dr Pearson feels that while health foods will form a large part of our diets in the future, they won’t be provided by supermarkets, but by farmers, especially when automated car technology becomes mainstream:

“What I call a ‘virtual vegetable plot’ where a certain portion of the field is allocated to growing particular things according to your particular requirements and then they get delivered to you straight from the farm.

“There’s not much role for the supermarket in health; it’s much harder if you start putting the supermarket in the loop, it’s much easier if you just use web apps to communicate directly with the producers. The progress towards self-driving cars and drones will also bring down delivery costs quite markedly.”

The idea of what Dr Pearson calls ‘peer-to-peer food production’ will be more like electricity production than grocery shopping:

“We’ll see a lot more home production for people growing things in the back garden and selling stuff from each other’s greenhouses, the same as we’re seeing people growing solar energy and shipping it back into the grid or effectively selling it to the next-door neighbour.

“We’ll just bypass the supermarkets more and more.”

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