Gro­cery stores slow to adopt use­ful tech­nol­ogy

The Sault Star - - OPINION - SYL­VAIN CHARLEBOIS Syl­vain Charlebois is a pro­fes­sor in food dis­tri­bu­tion and pol­icy and sci­en­tific di­rec­tor of the Cana­dian Agri­food Fore­sight In­sti­tute at Dal­housie Univer­sity

Some Cana­di­ans detest go­ing to the gro­cery store while en­joy dis­cov­er­ing new prod­ucts or new flavours. But most Cana­di­ans would agree on one thing. Wait­ing in line to pay for your items is the sin­gle most frus­trat­ing part of gro­cery shop­ping,

For decades, the most mis­man­aged part of the gro­cery ex­pe­ri­ence has al­ways been leav­ing the store.

To avoid get­ting stuck in line wait­ing to pay for their items, Cana­di­ans will opt for the of­ten dys­func­tional self-check­out machines. Poorly de­signed self­check­out lanes have been a source of frus­tra­tion ever since the tech­nol­ogy first ap­peared in Cana­dian stores in 2000. Some­thing al­ways goes wrong, which then re­quires an em­ployee with a por­ta­ble scan­ner to come to the res­cue. The ex­pe­ri­ence is, most of­ten, em­bar­rass­ing and an­noy­ing. But, de­spite all the flaws, Cana­di­ans still are us­ing self-check­outs. Ac­cord­ing to a re­cent sur­vey by Dal­housie Univer­sity, 66 per cent of us have used self-check­out lanes at some point, and 11 per cent use them con­sis­tently.

Gro­cers have had a love-hate re­la­tion­ship with tech­nol­ogy for decades. Most feel tech­nol­ogy gets in the way of con­nect­ing with cus­tomers in­side the store. It has long been be­lieved that the only way to build cus­tomer loy­alty and in­crease foot traf­fic is to in­ter­act with vis­it­ing cus­tomers, as much pos­si­ble. But the time pres­sures of our mod­ern life­style and our con­stant quest for con­ve­nience have not only forced gro­cers to think dif­fer­ently about how they man­age the gro­cery ex­pe­ri­ence, but have also com­pelled them to seek dif­fer­ent chan­nels to reach more cus­tomers, such as on­line de­liv­ery and meal kits.

Want­ing to hu­man­ize the gro­cery ex­pe­ri­ence is just one thing with which gro­cers grap­ple. En­cour­ag­ing im­pulse buy­ing is an art gro­cers have mas­tered in the brick-and-mor­tar en­vi­ron­ment. While you wait in line, you’re sur­rounded by candies, gum, mag­a­zines, and other small temp­ta­tions. How­ever, get­ting cus­tomers to buy on im­pulse in front of a screen is another story.

But gro­cers see what’s com­ing. Ac­cord­ing to the same Dal­housie Univer­sity sur­vey, nearly two per cent of Cana­di­ans buy food on­line reg­u­larly, and more than 34 pert cent are think­ing about do­ing so. This means Cana­di­ans slowly are been drawn to so­lu­tions which can save them time, and avoid the has­sle of gro­cery shop­ping. More than 14 per cent of Cana­di­ans also have or­dered ready-to-cook prod­ucts from meal kit providers, a num­ber which is likely to in­crease.

Ex­ter­nal dis­rup­tors like Ama­zon want to re­mind Cana­di­ans that tech­nol­ogy can serve a pur­pose in the gro­cery busi­ness and make any visit a civ­i­lized en­deav­our. Ama­zon Go is a store in which you don’t need to talk to any­one. You pick out your gro­ceries and walk away with­out pay­ing. Sen­sors de­tect what you have picked up, and the ap­pro­pri­ate amount is au­to­mat­i­cally de­ducted from your bank ac­count. Non­tra­di­tional gro­cers are demon­strat­ing there is a bet­ter way to im­ple­ment tech­no­log­i­cal so­lu­tions to en­hance our shop­ping ex­pe­ri­ence.

The in­dus­try is go­ing through a sig­nif­i­cant tran­si­tion. Cana­di­ans are de­mand­ing more con­ve­nience, and not just the younger gen­er­a­tions, but any­one who doesn’t want gro­cery shop­ping to be a slog.

Gro­cers know con­sumers are ex­pect­ing seam­less so­lu­tions that will make gro­cery shop­ping more pleas­ant. But gro­cers also rec­og­nize no one wants to pay more for bet­ter tech­nol­ogy, or de­liv­ery for that mat­ter. So, pa­tience is a virtue. Gro­cers will get there, but it may take a while.

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