Every day 33 million of us spend some time at the grocery store. It’s no wonder retailers are trying to transform our shopping experiences with new flavors, innovative technologies and expanding services to make buying groceries easier, more fun and more delicious than ever. Here’s what you need to know about the top trends.
Today’s supermarket restaurants, “grocerants,” range from high-quality, quick-service takeaways to sit-downs with full bars. In some cases, retailers are teaming up with celebrity chefs. Hotshot L.A. chef Roy Choi recently opened an outpost of his wildly popular Kogi Taqueria and food truck inside the Whole Foods in El Segundo, California. Chicago-area chain Mariano’s hired award-winning chef Ryan LaRoche away from the Blue Duck Tavern in Washington, D.C., to transform supermarket back rooms into kitchens worthy of white-tablecloth restaurants and train the staff to turn out restaurant-quality fare. Elsewhere, Wegmans, Kroger, ShopRite, Publix and others boast growler (take-out beer) taps, sushi counters, wine bars, smokehouses, smoothie bars and gourmet pizza ovens.
Last year, the meal-kit revolution took off with brands such as Blue Apron, Purple Carrot and Chef’d delivering premeasured ingredients and step-by-step instructions to customers’ doors for as little as $10 per serving. Naturally, supermarkets want a piece of this fast-growing market and now offer their own versions, from Aprons Simple Meals at Publix to Hy-Vee’s Fresh Meal Kits. Prices start at $15 per meal for two.
Nutrition in Aisle 3
Eating right starts with buying the right food, and now you can get help at your local market. More than 1,000 retail dietitians work in an estimated 11,000 supermarkets across the U.S. Their services, often free, include supermarket tours, nutrition classes, cooking demonstrations, food sampling, answering shoppers’ questions, even one-on-one counseling.
“I like seeing a customer and having a conversation right in the aisle,” says Rachel Simpers, RD, a retail dietitian at ShopRite in Hillsborough, New Jersey. “I love knowing his or her family and being able to give nutrition advice or a product recommendation.”
You can shop without leaving home via any number of services, including Amazon. (The online retail giant’s food sales are projected to reach $23.3 billion by 2021.) Instacart, now available in numerous cities in 23 states plus the District of Columbia, shops for you at your favorite stores. You order online (or using an iPhone or Android app), pay a small delivery fee and your groceries are at your door an hour later or when otherwise scheduled. Other grocers, such as Kroger and Publix, offer a hybrid service—order online and their trained staff gathers your groceries for pickup outside the store or from a drive-through.
For some shoppers, especially millennial and post-millennial (Gen Z) consumers, smaller is better. German retailers Aldi and Lidl are challenging mainstream supermarkets with smaller stores stocked with high-quality products at low prices and a quick, convenient retail experience. Aldi, with more than 1,500 stores in the U.S., offers savings of up to 50 percent on their own store brands (which occupy more than 90 percent of the shelf space). Lidl is expected to open as many as 100 U.S. stores this year.
Amazon Go is a prototype convenience store in Seattle, where fresh food meets cutting-edge technology. The store has a kitchen that makes sandwiches, prepared foods and meal kits daily, plus a small selection of grocery staples. But what sets it apart is “just walk out” technology that’s similar to the tech behind driverless cars. It tracks what shoppers grab from shelves (or put back) and automatically charges purchases to their Amazon accounts. No lines, no cash registers.
Today’s shoppers care where and how their food is grown, raised, made and by whom. Almost three-quarters of us favor companies that are transparent about how their products are made, according to a 2016 Nielsen survey.
Whole Foods led the way in promoting its 5-Step Animal Welfare Rating to help shoppers gauge the agricultural practices for the store’s beef, pork and poultry. Kosher and halal foods (prepared with stringent food-safety practices for religious reasons) are expected to grow by double digits over the next decade as more non-Jewish and non-Muslim shoppers embrace their tenets of good animal husbandry and food-safety practices. Halal and kosher foods are particularly popular among millennial and Gen Z shoppers (the 60-million-strong juggernaut of 6- to 21-year-olds who are already making their shopping needs heard). Shaped by the Great Recession and terrorism, the older members of Gen Z are financially cautious and demand good value from the products they buy. They hate corporate greed and expect transparency from brands.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates up to 40 percent of our food goes to waste, and almost one-third of that occurs at the retail and consumer level. The USDA and Environmental Protection Agency have set a goal to cut food waste in half by 2030.
Retailers, including Walmart, are promoting “ugly” (bruised or oddly shaped) fruits and vegetables that traditionally have ended up in landfills. ShopRite and other retailers save food from landfills by donating to food banks and composting. Other stores give space to bulk bins, which cut down on packaging while saving both retailers and shoppers money.
Retailers are using smartphone apps and other technology to make shopping simpler, more informative and fun:
Indiana-based Marsh Supermarkets launched the Fresh Lettuce app, which rewards shoppers for watching their videos by loading cash onto their store rewards card.
AVA, adaptive in-store media triggered by facial recognition, can identify a shopper’s approximate age and sex to assign a code and track where she goes in the store and how long she spends looking at a product to give brands and supermarkets deeper insight into shoppers’ habits.
GroceryIQ, a free Android or iPhone app, helps users build shopping lists and find relevant coupons.
Ipiit enables consumers with food allergies and intolerances to scan product barcodes and identify ingredients they need to avoid.
Key Ring stores all those retail membership and loyalty cards that typically clutter your wallet or keychain and also lets you create shopping lists.
The Future of Food?
Silicon Valley and some of its star tech mavens are turning their attention to the supermarket. In fact, the research firm CB Insights estimates that more than $5.7 billion was invested in food startups and projects in 2015. Tech types see lots of room for improvement in the food arena. “The food system is too complex, too expensive and too fragile,” says Rob Rhinehart, CEO of Soylent, a drink mix that claims to offer the complete set of nutrients a body needs for survival for $3 per serving. “Farms are ineffective due to climate and labor conditions.”
The goal? For starters, to produce food that’s safer, better for the environment and animal welfare and with a longer shelf life.
L.A. company Beyond Meat makes a plant-based Beyond Burger that mimics the flavor, texture and aroma of beef but with a substantially smaller environmental footprint. There’s also Ripple, a dairy-free milk made by combining proteins, vitamins, natural sugars from yellow peas, sugar cane and sunflower oil, while Perfect Day’s recipe comes from 3-D-printed DNA sequences that instruct yeast to produce casein plus two proteins to form whey-fermentation with corn sugar and nutrients to make dairy milk—without cows.
Make Way for Gen Z Shoppers
A new generation is about to take the food scene by storm, leaving millennials in the dust. Gen Zers, a 60-million-strong juggernaut of 6- to 21-year-olds, are more likely than their elders to eat fresh home-cooked meals and healthier fast-food offerings. They enjoy cooking on the stove top vs. in the microwave, and they’re less likely to rely on recipes—all they need is a picture or video and they’re ready to cook! Even more ethnically diverse than millennials, these young consumers consider global flavors the norm.
What America Eats: Global Flavors
But they also share some qualities with their grandparents. Shaped by the Great Recession and terrorism, they’re willing to work hard for a stable future. Gen Zers are financially cautious and demand good value from the products they buy. A study of more than 2,000 Americans ages 14 to 19 conducted by the retail marketing firm Interactions found 89 percent are very price conscious. Gen Zers hate corporate greed, and expect transparency from brands.