The Future of Supermarkets

On April 26th, BFood and Bocconi Students for Innovation had the pleasure of hosting an event with experts in the food and grocery industry, among which: Gabriele Tubertini (COOP) and Alberto Pozzi (Accenture), as well as entrepreneurs Alfonso Correale (WIB) and Gianluca Maruzzella (Indigo), who have shed light on the challenges this industry is facing in our rapidly evolving world.

Just like any other sector, the food and grocery industry has had to adapt to a new kind of consumer, one that wants everything easily available as quickly as possible. In this context, however, consumers have also become seekers of experiences, thus making supermarkets not only stores, but locations that must be able to satisfy emotion-based needs. On this matter, Gabriele Tubertini explained that COOP, a national leader in organized mass distribution, began their journey towards upgrading their customer experience in 2015, in preparation for the Milan EXPO. Their concept was built around this focal question: “Will supermarkets still exist in 2050?”

The company found an original answer; one that did not make technology a priority but put human beings at its core: they let the products themselves answer the numerous enquiries clients often have, such as the quality and the ethics of the foods they were buying. To implement this, COOP made screens that displayed the nutritional values and other important characteristics of the items: the origin and seasonality of the products, which are fundamental pieces of information for customers that value specific features like “farm-to-table” or organic goods, but also key for clienteles with food intolerances or specific food habits (e.g. veganism, celiac disease, etc.). From the EXPO showroom to the Bicocca Village, this is where “the supermarket of the future” has found its permanent home, an innovative formula that proves to be effective because it provides customers with the right information, exactly when they need it.

However, the Italian food and grocery market would not be able to innovate without the concrete contribution of startups like Indigoand WIB, which have invented ways of integrating technology to close the gap between companies and their clients. The idea behind Indigo, which builds customizable chatbots to facilitate the communication flow between a company and consumers, was born to satisfy the need of 5 university students who were unable to get in contact with the university’s Student Affairs Office. One of its first customers, for example, was the supermarket chain Maxi, a known retailer in the Veneto region, which has been able to quickly solve simple issues with its customers thanks to the implementation of this service. Although the company has only been active since September 2016, Indigo might already have a market niche cut out for itself.

On the other hand, Warehouse in a Box (WIB)is a platform for devices that interact with both automated stores and lockers. A big advantage of these lockers is that they are multi-operator and will certainly become a must-have in the offices and supermarkets of the future, where people will be able to send and store their packages and pick them up on their way home. This system solves two main issues: firstly, that of deliveries when no one is home and secondly it significantly reduces the carbon footprint that has exponentially surged due to the increase popularity of ecommerce. Correale and Pozzi also emphasized that supermarkets in the future will likely implement face-detection technology to display ad hoc advertisement, a technique that has been ever more present in airports as well and has proven to be quite effective.

Throughout the debate, the topic of digital externalities was unexpectedly a common denominator. First off, grocery delivery does not seem to have spread as much in Italy as in other countries. Why is that? Besides major cities, Italians still enjoy the sensorial experience of doing the shopping: whether it is the fragrant smell of freshly baked bread or the sight of garnished pastries, the supermarket is still able to provide an added value that internet shopping is just not able to deliver. Tubertini, in fact, believes that, to date, bio-marketing is still the most effective in this sector because it makes individuals a priority, so that their most intimate needs can be satisfied, often with less technology. Thus, it is very unlikely that you will add to you digital shopping basket items that are not present on your list, whilst it is very common for individuals to indulge in unplanned treats as they navigate the isles of their favorite market.

However, the biggest challenge when it comes to food delivery is more pragmatic. To begin with, keeping the stock count updated in real time is extremely hard when dealing with tens of thousands of products, especially when they can be picked up by someone physically doing the shopping at any time. Furthermore, market research has shown that Italians have a misconception about online shopping, which they believe should be cheaper. Therefore, shopping delivery is not valued as an additional service, but as an extra expense. Given that the industry works with really low margins, cents are what really make the difference; remaining competitive with these additional costs has proven to be a challenge. Moreover, all the speakers have also highlighted that the fault for this slow innovation growth should be partly attributed to the management teams, who, as part of the previous generation, are a bit reluctant when it comes to implementing new technologies.

Overall, data seems to confirm that the food and grocery business is coming to a turning point; one that will significantly impact the way Italians experience supermarkets. The ground-breaking creations of many start-ups and affirmed businesses will certainly improve and evolve the concept of grocery shopping throughout the country, providing us with new tools that will make our lives more efficient and offer us more information about the type of products we are consuming.However, given our strong culinary tradition, one that does not limit itself to the supermarket, but also extends into many aspects of our daily life, the real protagonist of this narrative should always remain the passion for good quality food.

Enrica De Colle

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