In March 2021 Tech London Advocates published the first of four e-books on the Digital High Street 2030. You can read Mark Jenkinson's contribution to the Retail Experience e-book below and read other blogs and vlogs here
FROM FARM TO FORK by Mark Jenkinson
Back in 2004, while at a former company, we identified six new untapped market sectors which could help deliver over £300 million of additional business – one of these was Retail.
In the year Facebook launched, two years before Amazon established AWS and three years before the first iPhone appeared, we were already exploring how we could integrate communications and mobile technology, logistics and warehousing systems, point-of-sale (POS) solutions, transport, energy and building technologies.
We claimed we had the technology and capability to improve the retail journey from “cow to plate” – I guess the current term of “farm to fork” is slightly more palatable!
So, what has changed in the last 16 or so years? Here is a brief compare and contrast, with a seasoning of personal nostalgia.
From the farm
Tracking the origin of food and other products for health and quality purposes has been a topic for some time. Although invented in 1948, it was not until the 80s and 90s that commercial applications for RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) began to enter the mainstream. Nevertheless, even in the mid-2000s we were still struggling with the cost and application of RFID tags within retail.
Today, sustainably produced, quality food is not only seen as vital for health and quality purposes but also addressing climate change and pollution. In the context of the European Green Deal, the EU’s Farm2Fork initiative seeks to “transform how we produce, distribute, and consume food via policy change as well as investments in research and technologies”.
Technology and data solutions, including RFID, have a significant role to play in tracking produce as well as minimising waste and supporting a circular economy.
Online shopping, or e-commerce, was invented back in 1979 by an entrepreneur using videotex, a two-way message service. However, some say e-commerce really started, albeit in a limited way, in 1991 with the commercialisation of the internet.
Today, around 80 percent of U.S. consumers now shop online, compared to 22 percent in 2000. Each month, over 197 million people globally visit Amazon.com – you may have heard of it.
By the end of 2020, online retail orders are expected to account for as much as 10% of total purchases. Online grocery orders tripled compared to pre-pandemic levels and 7.5 percent of UK consumers now buy groceries online. I must admit I am currently one of the 92.5 percent.
Warehousing / Logistics
In my early career as a graduate trainee in the 1990s, I was given the “character-building” task of carrying out a very manual, mind-numbing, year-end stocktake in my first company’s UK logistics hub.
Fortunately, things have moved on for me and technology!
Now, super-efficient warehousing and logistics systems are even more important than ever given the rapid rise of e-commerce. Companies like Ocado have pioneered automated warehousing systems incorporating the latest automation, robotics and control systems as bots whizz up and down aisles fulfilling millions of our on-line orders every day.
In-store experience and sustainability
Over 30 years ago during the school holidays – yes, I am that old – I stacked shelves, served customers at the deli counter, and worked on the tills at my local Co-op.
Going into my local Co-op today, I am struck that not much has changed. Yes, there are self-scanners - which people still seem to loathe – and the staff carry their annoying beeping barcode readers to replenish stock on the shelves. And there is definitely more plastic packaging!
Although the energy efficiency of stores may be better than in the 1980s, there is clearly a lot more to do. Asda were already an energy efficiency pioneer in the late 2000s and in October 2020 joined Sainsbury’s by pledging to be net zero by 2040.
Who knows whether Walmart’s store-cleaning robots, interactive displays, and artificial intelligence to keep stock levels consistent will hit my local supermarket soon?
What certainly has not changed, is that some people still need (socially distanced) human contact and a chat. This is especially true at the time of writing in the run up to a COVID-19 Christmas. Physical stores can still provide this, as they have done since time began.