The supermarket sector may seem to some to be a sector of the retail industry that remains largely unchanged, with a number of familiar names filling their shelves with well-known brands for consumers to fill their baskets with on the weekly shop.
In reality, however, there are several significant trends taking place that are helping to change the face of the supermarket retail scene. In particular, five stand out.
The use of smartphone apps for all manner of tasks has exploded in recent years, with both the rising number of apps and the increasing ownership of smartphones ensuring this is the case.
Not surprisingly, this has led to a range of commercial opportunities and both supermarkets and technology firms have identified the possibilities.
The result has been the emergence of home-based assistants to support smart shopping. These include Amazon's Alexa, Google Home and Apple's Home app.
It might be imagined that these apps will just manifest themselves in more online purchases. Instead, they can be a way of placing orders so that the local supermarket has the product people want in stock when they arrive. This possibility is now available; FoodNavigator notes that consumers can use Alexa to order deliveries through Amazon’s e-commerce marketplace.
A key feature of retail in general has been the shift from physical footfall in the high street to online shopping. It is no surprise that retailers both in the UK and elsewhere are becoming increasingly involved in enhancing their home delivery services.
Dutch firm Albert Heijn is one example of a retailer at work on this. It produced an app called Rapple that has enabled customers in Rotterdam to place an order and have it delivered within two hours. A further innovation has seen some parts of Amsterdam being served with deliveries by cycling delivery riders within 15 minutes of ordering.
However, while developing new home delivery services, supermarket retailers are balancing this with new ways of luring shoppers out of their homes and into the stores.
Among these is a prospect noted in the 2017-18 Waitrose Food and Drink Report. It observed that if many non-perishable items are being purchased mainly through online means, this can free up shelf space for more fresh food. This will make supermarkets increasingly into places where consumers can make a spontaneous decision to drop in and get something that has just landed on the shelves.
It also noted that visiting the supermarket could become a more experience-oriented trip. Instead of being a functional activity based on acquiring a few goods,
paying for them and going home, the presence of wine bars and supper clubs could add a whole new dimension to visits.
The importance of making food sustainable in an age of environmental consciousness is increasingly having an impact on supermarkets. The use of palm oil in products may be on its way out - notwithstanding the controversy over the cancelled Iceland Christmas advert. The use of single use plastic packaging may also be on its way out.
At the same time, localism is growing as the ability to source produce with fewer food miles - thus reducing carbon footprints - has an increasing appeal. Indeed, the traceability of farm-to-fork is a key appeal for any product, and the emergence of the technology to track this will help both to establish and demonstrate best practice.
Research into how and what people eat has shown a clear trend towards more vegetarian and vegan diets. Whether this means people fully adopting plant-based diets or simply cutting down meat, there is no doubt which way these trends are heading at present. Motivations for this are both health and ethics-based.
Another health-related development is the trend towards lower sugar, perhaps triggered by the arrival of the sugar tax on soft drinks. Sweets like sugar-free ice cream are increasingly popular, while the latest Mintel report has indicated the emergence of a wide array of new, sugar-free flavours in the soft drink market.
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