Technology is making grocery fresher than ever

No disrespect to the frozen foods section (which may be on the rebound), but there’s an exponential increase in demand for fresh, transparently sourced food. Fresh is growing, and it’s becoming synonymous with quality, flavor, and health.

While the InstaCarts and FreshDirects of this world are excellent for plan-ahead weekly stocks, there’s immense value to being able to see your produce, meat, and perishables on the shelf before buying—for in-the-moment shopping, sometimes called the “full basket shopping experience.” Amazon and Google have played with fresh to mixed results, but brick & mortar grocery has a great set of cards to play here.

Fresher Product: More Than Meets The Eye

To the naked eye, fresh is largely about appearance on shelf: beautiful-looking produce, perishables, and meat products. But obviously a great deal of what actually makes a product fresh and safe for consumption is not immediately visible.

Fresh happens before product hits shelves, and it continues on shelf through continued monitoring. Major U.S. grocery services are using AI to enable end-to-end forecasting, reduce time from source to shelf, and strengthen replenishment by monitoring product through RFID tagging.

As a result, two of Ahold Delhaize’s chains have seen a marked drop in unplanned shipments—51 percent for fish and 44 percent for pork—resulting in fresher products in stores.

In partnership with IBM, Golden State Foods has piloted a network of IoT sensors and RFID tags to give one major QSR player next-generation visibility throughout the chain. Effectively, they managed to turn a 30-day frozen beef supply chain into 5-day fresh beef supply chain.

Safety Happens From Seed To Store

Again, fresh is far more than aesthetic. The more grocery retailers can peel back the corn husk, so to speak, revealing to customers where their products are coming from, the more trust they build. Clean, reliable sourcing is paramount.

Here, the value of blockchain is gaining ground, and there are already measurable results. IBM’s Food Trust is a blockchain system that cuts through the noise so that retailers can trace food back to origin, prevent outbreaks, keep up with trends, and adjust for scarcity or abundance.

Walmart’s aim in joining Food Trust is “traceability at the speed of thought”—not just where food comes from but how it was produced, whether it was sustainably grown, and how much shelf life is left.

“Ugly produce” is a stigmatized area of consumer perception that needs an overhaul, as the best produce is not always the prettiest. But technology can help ensure safety and rid us of eyesores in another area: the in-aisle experience.

Giant Food Stores have begun rolling out a lifesize innovation: an autonomous robot named “Morty” who looks for out-of-stock items and scans the aisles for spills, debris, and potential hazards to employees. That’s food safety on another level.

Taking The Waste Out Of The Warehouse

Fewer errors in forecasting and quality/safety assessment means dramatic savings. Food waste results from excess product spending too much time in the warehouse AND on the shelf, which is where some consumer education may be needed.

There’s a good deal to be learned from the Imperfect Produce model, which has turned the stigma around “ugly” product on its ear. Given that there’s as much as 20 billion pounds of good product being wasted, there’s tremendous opportunity to rethink the ways perishable inventory might be repurposed or directed to locations where it’s guaranteed to be used.

This is a powerful area to engage directly with farmers and suppliers, localizing your supply chain and demonstrating a commitment that customers are increasingly looking for.

Optimal energy management and refrigeration also cuts costs. But more importantly, it helps retailers follow through on safety and sustainability. Sun Basket, a new player in the meal kits game, has gone so far as to refrigerate their products in the heart of a cave in rural Illinois, where the natural refrigeration and insulation from limestone walls basically form an endlessly renewable resource.

What Becomes Possible When Fresh Is The Standard?

What if retailers can change the expenses associated with “fresh” on their end? Can they redefine what “fresh” means for the non-Whole Foods consumer, making it far more accessible to everyone?

In other words, if fresh is the standard, customers won’t have to pay higher prices for access, and the Aldis of this world may be able to win attention and share from more high-end chains. Can grocery stores grow kinship with the health & wellness industry by providing greater access to fresh foods?

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