Tech Advances in Retail/Food Industry During the Pandemic

The recent pandemic grabbed humanity by its Achilles heel and shock civilization hard. The ensuing rapid technical adaptations to improve our odds were almost magical in both speed and design. While most of the souped-up food and retail technologies were elements of survival-on-the-fly, some of the new tech will likely outlive the virus threat.

Many of the tech advances will remain based on popular demand.

“Customers have grown accustomed to seamless omnichannel shopping, making it less of a differentiator and more of an expectation. Tech-averse demographics who may not have otherwise made the move to online shopping are now doing so regularly, after having to do it out of necessity at the beginning of the pandemic,” says Pete Olanday, director of consulting, vertical solutions: retail, leasing, telecommunications, at Vertex, a provider of tax technology and services.

But other forces are also ensuring recent technology changes remain in service. Topping that list are ongoing supply chain issues.

“Digitalization of the food supply chain is accelerating partly due to the pandemic, aiming to mitigate the impact of future supply disruptions. Key opportunities lie in the ability to connect the vast amount of data generated across the often-siloed stages that food moves through, including production, transportation, and purchase,” says Bryan Hitchcock, vice president of science, policy and learning, at the Institute of Food Technologists and executive director of the Global Food Traceability Center. The Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) is a global organization of approximately 12,000 individual members from 95 countries committed to advancing the science of food.

“Digitizing supply chains allows organizations to anticipate disruptions more effectively, react appropriately, and adjust in a timely manner. This ensures a more responsive and resilient supply chain,” Hitchcock adds.

The Shake Out After the Shake Up

The pandemic itself presented many challenges but they were made worse by laggard industries hesitating to stay on top of changes in technology and consumer behaviors.

“Leading up to the pandemic, retail technology failed to meet the evolving needs of the customer. Brands mistakenly believed that they were still in control of the relationship. In reality, the consumer had already taken control of information, expectations, convenience, and the ability to engage only with brands that aligned with their lifestyle and values,” says Michael Levitz, chief business officer at Reaktor, a global digital consultancy for large retail brands.

Normally retailers and brands would have taken over a decade or more to adapt, according to Levitz.

“But with the pandemic as the great accelerator, it all took place in a year or two. Now, consumers will only engage and open their wallet for brands that engage on their terms. Retail technology is critical to delivering on this, and brands are racing to catch up,” Levitz adds.

Grocery retail was and is in a similar situation.

“During the pandemic, foodservice technology was forced to step up its game as a response to ever-changing consumer desires and expectations. While people still want meaningful experiences when they leave home, they are prioritizing convenience, simplicity, and low-contact interactions,” says Scott Finlow, global CMO of foodservice at PepsiCo.

“In addition, many foodservice and retail businesses have been impacted by labor shortages. Tech-driven solutions have emerged as a result to help free up time of staff so they can focus on other priorities — all while continuing to drive sales and improving consumer experience,” Finlow adds.

Now that some of the pandemic-driven pressures are subsiding, at least for the moment, the food and retail sectors are left reling from the effects on their industries.

“They are suffering from a bit of a technology hangover after a late night of technology binge adoption,” says Andrew Robbins, co-founder and CEO, Paytronix Systems, a provider of customer engagement and loyalty programs for restaurants, retail chains, and convenience stores.

Improved but Not Necessarily New

Responding to the pandemic required the food and retail industries to master the steepest learning curve in modern times.

“The biggest change that occurred was the fast adoption of technologies that already existed. Restaurants faced an existential threat and had to do everything they could to both maintain relationships with customers and meet the consumers’ needs. In the process they found that consumers were willing to try and accept new technologies at a rate that was much faster than restauranteurs thought was possible,” says Robbins.

Those businesses that succeeded in surviving learned their lessons well.

“Now restaurants know the direction and they are pushing for fuller adoption of technology,” says Robbins.

But first many of those same restaurants have to figure out how to make the patchwork systems they slapped together work in a more refined environment.

“They put in a bunch of systems that don’t integrate seamlessly and that is causing headaches for the consumer and restaurant frontline staff. Many restauranteurs are refactoring their technology decisions and working to simplify their tech stacks to get seamlessly integrated systems,” Robbins adds.

Now It’s Time To Build Something New

“Spurred by the pandemic, we’ve seen a tremendous appetite from our customers for technology-driven experiences, and within a week of the pandemic, we saw a boom in our online traffic, which started reaching Black Friday levels — customers were flocking to get their homes improved as it became a sanctuary for them,” says Neelima Sharma, SVP of technology, e-commerce, marketing and merchandising at Lowe’s.

To build on that success and further cater to consumer demand, Sharma says Lowe’s is working on ways to expand both in-store and digital customer experiences. The store’s app for example contains several features which are already popular with customers. Sharma says the Lowe’s app now includes:

  • Geofence feature: The app is geofenced so workers are alerted when the customer is on-site. This speeds customer service as workers can quickly cater to customer needs or deliver their order to their vehicle.
  • In-store assistant: Helps customers find items in the store and research additional details.
  • In-store shopping: “We’ve seen a tremendous increase in customers purchasing things online via the app while they are in the physical store, which is no surprise — a typical Lowe’s store stocks approximately 40,000 items, with over two million additional items available online and through our special order sales system,” Sharma says.

Retail grocers are similarly building on their technology-aided successes.

“To help facilitate both the growing consumer demand for omnichannel shopping and overcome supply chain challenges that continue to disrupt the global economy, food retailers have also made significant investments in areas like micro-fulfillment centers and ghost kitchens to improve order fulfillment,” Doug says. Baker, the vice president of industry relations at FMI – The Food Industry Association, the trade association that represents grocers and food retailers.

“Additionally, grocers have drastically expanded their data analytics and artificial intelligence capabilities to improve supply chain efficiency and product traceability, which will also help reduce food waste,” Baker adds.

However, individual restaurants, grocers, and retail companies choose to build upon their newfound technological prowess, they’re all making direct contact with customers, which heretofore, was the missing ingredient in most customer relations programs. Let alone, customer experience efforts.

“The overarching theme to come out of this lengthy pandemic has been the trend towards extending, or establishing, a direct-to-consumer relationship through technology,” says Jake Loveless, the CEO of Edgemesh, a provider of headless ecommerce infrastructure to retail brands .

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