The concept of being “digital first” is causing food retailers to rethink every aspect of their operations and think differently about the shopper’s traditional path to purchase. That means looking further upstream to a place where innovation abounds and technology is altering how shoppers engage with retailers, brands and the process of meal preparation.
All of these technologies were on display by Boston-based appliance maker General Electric at the massive Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas earlier this year. The consumer technology industry’s largest trade show offered a glimpse of futuristic kitchens as imagined by GE’s industrial design team, including concepts that shift as use cases change. Someday, countertop heights may even adjust for better accessibility or to compensate for disabilities.
Some technologies are less “out there.” Already, smart appliances are available and installed in homes, albeit in small numbers. As of September 2019, household penetration of smart appliances (those connected to the internet) was just 3.9%, as measured by Hamburg, Germany-based Statista. Smaller connected appliances, like smart speakers and robotic vacuums, are enjoying greater adoption — 9.2%, according to the same study. By 2024, household penetration is projected at 8.3% for large appliances and 15.6% for small items.
This has been Amazon’s game plan all along. It’s the impetus behind the Seattle-based company’s Dash buttons, which have morphed from small devices into new digital iterations being preloaded onto new appliances like Seoul, South Korea-based LG’s ThinQ washing machine and a prototype refrigerator. Amazon also previewed at CES Dash-integrated packaging that lets consumers reorder as they open and use an item.
“The kitchen of the future will more likely be built around ‘systems’ people already use, but are not digitized,” Witcher predicts. “The future could bring smart pantries, where sensors know that a consumer has run out of an item, and automatically order a replacement — or three — of that same item, without the consumer having to do anything.
“The changes to ordering grocery will come slowly, because grocery shopping is considered utilitarian, and most consumers are quite comfortable shopping in their chosen grocery store,” he adds. Forrester estimates ecommerce grocery to be at about 3%, compared with 16% for general retail.
The tipping point will come, but not until technology offers solutions for problems that exist for real consumers. Robotic chefs may be mesmerizing to convention crowds, and reducing food waste is a grand political talking point, but technology doesn’t take off unless it solves a consumer problem, even if that problem is one consumers don’t realize they have.
There are robotic chefs, induction cooktops, automatic reordering — thanks to cameras in pantries and refrigerators — recipe recommendations based on ingredients on hand (more cameras), food composting and home growing, but technology promises to have a big impact on in-home food safety.
There are 48 million cases of foodborne illness annually in the United States, and in 2018 — the most recent year for which data is available — there were 125 food recalls by the USDA and 386 Class I recalls by the FDA, including pet foods.
So how can technology at home and in the field help?
“There is definitely room for AI and machine learning to assist in this area,” says Mitzi Baum, CEO of the nonprofit organization Stop Foodborne Illness, based in Chicago.
Research is being done, with not a lot being implemented. Many new smart features are designed to address nutritional needs and health concerns — great selling points — but those that address reducing foodborne illnesses with often deadly consequences would go a long way toward solving problems for consumers, suppliers and retailers alike.
Smart kitchens thus far mostly address issues of convenience. “A smart refrigerator is great,” notes Baum. “It beeps when you leave the door open, but does it give you a signal when it’s too warm? A lot of seniors are worried about energy costs, so instead of setting it at a safe temperature, it’s set in the danger zone, which can cause problems.”
Smart faucets, like Wisconsin-based Kohler’s Setra touchless model, keep bacteria off the surface, but North Olmstead, Ohio-based Moen’s Experience the U Smart Faucet promises to personalize things with precise temperature settings, making sure that hand washing is done at temps that prevent cross contamination from food handling in the home.
Refrigerators from multiple brands now, or will soon, include interiors that automatically adjust for optimal temperatures and report ripeness of fresh foods. Even more opportunities exist to help the industry better manage food recalls.
Blockchain technology is often cited as a way to track products and contamination to the source, identifying and removing dangerous food items from the supply chain. Leafy greens have presented a particular problem, with large recalls in 2018 and 2019 of romaine lettuce that may have been contaminated by E. coli. Nearly 100,000 pounds of packaged lettuce sold through retailers such as Aldi, Giant Eagle and Sam’s Club were affected just before Thanksgiving. Blockchain’s traceability allowed for quicker identification of the source of these tainted foods.
There’s opportunity for smart appliances to help further by identifying contaminated foods inside the home. “Some kind of sensor that could tell if listeria is present, that could measure and give a signal,” Baum suggests. “Green, the food is good. Yellow, eat it soon. Red, it’s been in there too long and there’s bacterial growth — throw it away.” Listeriosis can cause miscarriage and birth defects.
“If you have something that can read a barcode and tell you that an item is recalled and to throw it away, that would be a game changer,” Baum adds. Retailers have struggled to notify customers. Shopper loyalty cards have helped by keeping a record of purchases and enabling messaging, but they don’t reach everyone affected.
Advancements in food safety are unfortunately not considered a competitive advantage, Baum acknowledges. Some brands and merchants are working behind the scenes to secure a cleaner food supply and improve reaction times to outbreaks. Few see a marketing angle, however, and organizations are hesitant to make public statements about something with such a high degree of risk and accountability.
AI, when paired with computer vision, can help identify items by label, potentially intermediating outbreaks with greater alacrity. The current focus on reducing food waste places an emphasis on capturing expiration dates and letting consumers know when an item is close to its noted end. But expiration dates tend to be arbitrary and have less to do with foodborne illnesses than most consumers know.
That will take a long-term consumer education effort, but the real goal, according to Baum, is to save lives — with a little help from technology in the forms of smart kitchens and blockchain.