By John Lert
Not that long ago—before 2017, in fact—the idea of robots picking orders inside local supermarkets instead of customers would have seemed a fanciful and distantly futuristic concept. Now, it’s beginning to seem like a logical next step in the evolution of food retailing, with far-reaching implications for the retail and CPG industries.
First, a quick look back.
Grocery shopping underwent a radical change about a century ago when Clarence Saunders launched Piggly Wiggly, the first successful operator of “self-serving” food stores, where there were no clerks or counters between the customers and the products. Customers collected their own items in hand-carried baskets and then went through a checkout station to pay for them, enjoying the 20% reduction in prices due to improved operating efficiency.
Shoppers preferred self-service over clerk service because it provided direct access to product information and prices, enabling them to make purchase decisions at their own pace. This led to a rapid shift to the self-service model, which transformed not just food retail but eventually all of retail.
The next evolutionary leap in shopping occurred when King Cullen opened the first modern-day supermarket, combining a dry-grocery section with produce and meats and much more over time. By aggregating food shopping and saving the customer time, this innovative format quickly came to dominate food retail and still does, with practically every modern supermarket featuring a “center store” selling packaged goods and “perimeter departments” selling fresh goods.
While these two “markets” are conveniently available to shoppers under the same roof, the customer experience when shopping them is very different. The key difference derives from the fact most individual center store SKUs are identical, which is not true of fresh goods.
For example, a customer may spend time in the store evaluating which brand, size or variant of ketchup to buy, but once that decision is made, almost no time is spent selecting which specific bottle to buy. Why would they – they’re all the same. In the fresh market, by contrast, customers spend time selecting not only which products to buy, but also—because they are not identical—the specific unit of each product, often with great care.