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.
To be a digital-first grocer means understanding the dynamic landscape that’s quickly becoming the connected kitchen. Retailers are currently focused on delivery and in-store pickup options for online orders, mastering the operational basics and growing transaction sizes to improve profits. The kitchen of the future is coming, however, and, like all innovation, it represents both a threat and an opportunity for food retailers.
Imagine a kitchen, bright and white, with splashes of green — living green things that grow as food sources inside the home in the form of hydroponic and aeroponic garden walls. Small-scale fruit trees grow in rows of pots, nourished by output from a new iteration of the garbage disposal — one that composts instead, with a vacuum seal to block odors.
Countertops double as inductive cooktops that heat cookware but are cool to the touch (today’s are red- hot). Prep sinks don’t just have pot-filling faucets, but also steam vegetables. Cutting surfaces reflect portion sizes, and water dispensers gauge hydration levels. Cameras are everywhere, and they’re coming for our food — not in the form of Instagram-worthy glamour shots, but inside the refrigerator, where they promise to solve all kinds of problems, ranging from personal out-of-stock notices to reducing food waste on a global scale, and helping to minimize environmental damage.
The Future is Now
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.
The Consumer Technology Association (CTA) included smart appliances in its consumer survey for the first time in 2019 and found that 17% of U.S. households said they owned at least one such appliance (refrigerator, washer, dryer or dishwasher), although many use smart technology to identify and solve for maintenance issues, according to Steve Koenig, VP of research for Arlington, Va.-based CTA.
“More recently, we’ve started to see more convenience issues addressed,” he says. “The features that are going to be forthcoming in the next two to three years will be around services — where the contents of a refrigerator are monitored, for example — and more advanced features, and tied in with business partnerships with a retailer for replenishment.”
“From a hardware perspective, ‘Big Tech’ has been desperate to get into the kitchen for 20 years. Kitchen PCs were the initial foray, but that has always been a challenge, given the size of a PC,” notes Stephen Baker, VP of industry analysis at The NPD Group, in Port Washington, N.Y. “Tablets have had a great run at this, from delivering videos while you are cooking, recipes on demand, or just watching TV while you work in the kitchen.”
The problem is that these devices could leave the kitchen and have other uses. Today, there’s a drive to embed video screens connected to the internet either as small, less mobile devices in the kitchen that are inexpensive to replace and upgrade, and embedded displays in installed appliances like refrigerators and microwaves.
“Going forward, the battle for tech in the kitchen will be between those two concepts,” says Baker. “This should not be construed as thinking these are the only kitchen devices that will be connected. At some point everything will be connected — oven, dishwasher, Instant Pot, etc. — so it can be controlled, managed, integrated and examined by the central controlling intelligence of your Smart Home platform.”
Chinese electronics company Haier’s smart kitchens are controlled by the refrigerator, which acts as a hub — a common setup in today’s iteration. This one connects to Amazon to create zones for optimal food storage. There’s also a feature to scan items and order directly from Amazon Fresh, which is now available in Europe, while other versions are being developed to work with a wider variety of retailers in the United States.
GE’s microwave hood that installs over a stove is integrated with the Google Assistant and comes complete with a 27-inch high-definition display and Bluetooth-enabled speakers. Cameras inside the refrigerator can detect items and recommend recipes based on what’s there, or identify any missing ones that might require a run to the store or home delivery.
German multinational engineering and technology company Bosch’s Home Connect is an open platform for the Internet of Things (IoT) and home appliances that has already been adopted by a handful of other high-end brands, including Irvine, Calif.-based Thermador. The number of connected devices are projected to triple by 2025 to 75 billion, according to Statista, making a more open platform to connect them critical.
Catching the Consumer
“When change does come, it will unlikely be something so radical that it would change the core structure of the home kitchen,” observes Brendan Witcher, VP and principal analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester. “For example, it is unlikely that consumers will adopt some form of mini ecosystem where food waste is minimized through an in-home, gray-water composting system.”
Manufacturers at CES were indeed showcasing future-forward solutions that recirculated water from dishwashers to nourish the root systems of plant-based foods grown in the home, and that replaced garbage disposals with composting systems that also fed plants. And while these may be more advanced than we can expect to see in the next decade or more, there are elements of smart kitchens with realistic near-term implications.
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.