Supermarkets — is it time for a new model?

What can we expect from a supermarket in 2030? PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
What can we expect from a supermarket in 2030? PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
It has been announced that the New Zealand Government is courting Aldi and other international supermarket conglomerates in an effort to bust up this country’s duopoly and lower food prices.

We do need to do something and we need to move quickly, but the thought of courting the big European or American supermarket chains leaves me cold.

I had the dubious experience of dealing with various international supermarket chains in my time working in the meat industry — they all attempted to differentiate themselves on the basis of sustainability, but very rarely by paying producers what sustainability initiatives were actually worth.

My cynicism is backed up by Prof Tim Lang, the United Kingdom’s leading expert on food policy, speaking about the British food crisis in 2020: "At the heart of this crisis is a British willingness to let a small number of corporations dominate food retailing: just eight companies control 90% of our food supply" (and that’s in a population of 67 million).

I was pondering what realistic alternatives might look like when a new report by CBInsights came across my desk, "The future of the supermarket: how technology is making grocery shopping more personalised, efficient, and sustainable".

In the report the authors identify what we might expect from a supermarket in 2030.

Key technological changes will stem from labour shortages and supply chain disruption. Robots will be ubiquitous for personalised food preparation and packaging. Artificial intelligence (AI) will help us decide what we want to eat before we walk out the door — we will call on our AI nutritionist who will prep our grocery list, contact the robot who will package up our salad from a vertical farm and our meat from a 3-D printer and if we even bother to go to the store, we will refill our nuts into bioplastic containers we bring along. There will be no checkout — everything will be automatically charged as if by magic, but really through hidden cameras and sensors tracking all that we do.

Sounds pretty space age and it made me think: in busting our duopoly, are we being innovative enough?

Apparently New Zealand competitive players are just not big enough to make a dent on the duopoly, so I wondered: are there other business models that might fly? A supermarket in the UK I found really interesting was "The Co-operative" — where customers pay a minimal membership fee and gather rewards throughout the year and share in annual profits. Similar models have sprung up throughout the United States, all touting their sustainability, social and community conscience. Unfortunately, the social conscience often comes with higher food prices than the big chains — for a co-op model to be a solution in New Zealand, we might need to think differently for it to be cost-competitive.

I also wonder how two other societal trends — the rise of the sharing economy and subscription services — might influence the future of supermarkets.

The sharing economy — think Uber and Lime scooters — is built through virtual platforms which bring people and their needs together. There could be a food platform that brings the small holder producers together combined with a distribution centre that sends the orders out. No need for a supermarket middleman at all.

Subscription services are on the rise as well. We use them in my new business — it’s simple for consumers to opt in and out, and every month they automatically receive their order. Netflix and software products have led the way in the subscription model and food and other consumer goods are following fast. I even heard about a US company offering solar-powered roofing panels on subscription — the panels are installed and maintained for a monthly fee. Why not the same for our weekly food shop, but not necessarily from a supermarket supplier, rather a distributor for local food suppliers?

I am genuinely pleased the Government is acting to bust our supermarket duopoly, but I don’t think we want to rush to a situation like we have in banking sector, where all our profits are siphoned offshore. Could we spend more money and time now with leading food and business model experts, to design a solution for the future that allows us to integrate the benefits of new technology with the long-term needs of our local communities?

 - Anna Campbell is a co-founder of Zestt Wellness, a nutraceutical company. She also holds various directorships.

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