Observing Shopper Technology – Italian Style


Every September when I was a youngster, the nuns at St. Teresa of Avila School in Queens, N.Y., made us write an essay about what we did on our summer vacation. Since I just returned from a two-week vacation at the end of summer, that topic seemed appropriate for this blog.

My vacation took place in Milan and Venice, Italy. Like most grocery aficionados who travel widely, I look for interesting things to write about. I found three. All involve what I call shopper technology; that is, solutions that engage and inform consumers before or during grocery shopping.  

My vacation began in Milan, home of Milano Expo 2015 that ends this month. It is billed as the World’s Fair of Food, and its official theme is “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life.” One of the premium sponsors of this universal exhibition is COOP, a network of cooperatives that operate the largest supermarket chain in Italy with 1,444 stores. Food and beverage “official partners” include Coca-Cola, Birra Moretti, S. Pellegrino and Ferrero, the maker of branded chocolates. Some 140 countries entertained and informed visitors about their foods, sustainability, and the fight against hunger. Many of their exhibits were housed in architecturally stunning buildings.    

My favorite exhibit was the Future Food District. At its heart was the Supermarket of Tomorrow, designed to encourage interaction between grocery products and consumers. Products were displayed on low gondolas arranged like the aisles of a supermarket. Picking up a package or simply brushing a hand against it activates a digital screen above the gondola. The screen displays such information as the amount of calories, sugar, salt, fat and saturated fat, as well as the carbon footprint. Perhaps future supermarkets will be outfitted with such digital screens. It makes comparing products for healthy eating easier than picking up different packages and squinting at the small print on the label.

Meanwhile, while hopping off one of Milan’s clean and efficient Metro underground trains one day, I spotted pictures of grocery products and coupons on the wall of the station. “Coupons for Your Shopping” was the headline I could translate. A little research revealed the following: When consumers – who have previously downloaded a free app – scan a QR code next to a picture of the product, a coupon is placed on their smartphone. Discounts are given when paying at a store’s checkout. Some of the products featured were Mr. Clean, Swiffer, Voiello (penne pasta) and others.

Finally, in Venice I came across a mid-sized grocery store called Punto Simply Market. There were Electronic Shelf Labels (ESLs) on front of products on the shelves throughout the store except for the prepared foods department, which not surprisingly had a wide selection of pasta dishes. ESLs were the last thing I would expect to see in a “supermercato” in a less-traveled area of Venice.

Other than these shopper technologies, I marveled at DaVinci’s The Last Supper and the Duomo cathedral in Milan; in Venice I enjoyed a gondola ride on the Grand Canal with my wife, and we sipped an aperitivo while listening to a five-piece orchestra at the Café Florian in St. Mark’s Square.  

And that’s what I did on my summer vacation, Sister.    

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