Fixing retail: From robots to redesigns ​– what can be done to save Tesco, Asda and other supermarkets?

Once billed as the future of shopping, the supermarket’s appeal is on the wane as consumers turn to the convenience of online. So what can be done to save our ‘big shops’, and are they even worth saving? Cameron Clarke takes a look at what lies in store for stores over the next decade.

The UK’s love-hate relationship with the supermarket began in earnest on 7 November 1964, when the first out-of-town superstore opened on the outskirts of Nottingham. American-owned GEM, offering everything from groceries to clothes and furniture under one roof, was like nothing British shoppers had seen before. As its local newspaper advert trumpeted: “This is shopping as you want it! Streamlined. Modern. Convenient.”

And Brits did want it. Some 30,000 people flocked to GEM on its opening day, according to the Nottingham Evening Post, prompting the paper to solemnly intone that “the store had to be closed several times to clear the mass of shoppers in the food hall through the pay-out counters. Some buses ran as much as an hour late”.

The GEM brand’s popularity would ultimately prove short-lived (the store’s lease was soon taken over by a new business – a certain Asda, no less) but its warehouse-style approach to retailing lives on in the endless aisles we trudge around today. In fact, ‘the big shop’ has changed remarkably little over those 50 years. The difference now is that the supermarket’s appeal is wearing off.

In April, Tesco crashed to the biggest loss in UK retail history. Its £6.4bn plunge prompted the Channel 4 News economics editor, Paul Mason, to call for Tesco and its counterparts to reinvent themselves. “To modern consumers the average supermarket – not just Tesco – can feel like a chilly, toothpaste-coloured, fluorescent-lit hell,” he wrote in the Guardian. As this magazine goes to press, Asda has just posted a 3.9 per cent sales drop at a time when it is supposed to be in the midst of a ‘turnaround strategy’. Like that other ubiquitous 1960s innovation – the tower block – the once futuristic supermarket does not appear to be ageing well.

So what can be done to fix it? As part of a new occasional series we’re running peering into the world 10 years from now, we asked a mix of design, digital and retail experts to imagine what the supermarket – if it still exists as we know it – will look like in 2025. Nathan Watts, design director at Fitch, believes the supermarket will still be around in some form in 10 years’ time – but it might not be humans doing the shopping.

“There are companies now developing single-item picking robots that can actually start to create what could be a kind of automated supermarket,” Watts says. “I might be able to pre-order some food on the way to the supermarket on my phone and then some robots are picking it so that when I get to the store it’s already pre-packed for me, and I might use the time I’m there to handpick fresh produce.

“There’s this idea that’s been put forward called bimodal shopping, where you can actually create a better experience for the fresh produce but automate the basic grocery aspects of your shop, to help that sense of convenience basically.”

Given that we’re already accustomed to a lemming-like march through the aisles, mindlessly throwing the same items into our trolleys time and time again, automating this drudgery might not be such a big leap for shoppers. Most of the people we spoke to felt some kind of ‘Spotification’ of the grocery shop was on the way.

Carl Engelmarc, general manager of Shopitize, says: “In 2025 there will still be some physical stores, although they’ll be focused on technology and convenience. Instead subscription shopping services will be much more prominent, gradually replacing the conventional transaction model. The signs are already there, click-and-collect is on the up, and brands are looking for new revenue models.”

As much of a grocery shop consists of a reordering of ‘staples’ and therefore a repetition of data – 2kg of potatoes, 12 eggs, a jar of coffee – this could easily be systemised by retailers, according to Amaze’s business director for commerce, Nik Rolfe. “They can then say ‘your shopping is in the van ready for your fortnightly delivery’; the only other thing they need to ask is ‘do you want us to change the quantities?’”

Rolfe says this service could be offered already, but supermarkets have got to work harder to win consumers’ loyalty first: “While many people would be prepared to give exclusivity to a single provider, they are only likely to do so if they are rewarded with loyalty pricing. Retailers need to do more than just use data for promotions; instead they need to make intelligent recommendations if they are to secure our custom.”

Assuming that people will still want to visit stores to pick up fresh produce, genuine rewards and intelligent recommendations should come into play there too. Jamie King, executive planning director at Live & Breathe, says: “Tech-driven experiences and individual context will play a crucial role in how tomorrow’s consumers relate to physical space, allowing retailers to offer real-time promotions and dynamic personalised promotions via consumers’ mobile or wearable devices – however these evolve.”

And the devices we carry with us will interact with the products we find on the shelves, according to Gillian Garside-Wight, packaging technology director at Sun Branding Solutions. “If you have specific dietary needs, these technologies can highlight which products are not suitable for you through a mobile app,” she says, a move that would save us the effort of having to labour over small print. Embedded ‘touch code’ technology within packaging could transmit other messages to shoppers’ devices too, Garside-Wight says, such as recipes they can make with the products.

Customers’ own technology might be more effective than supermarkets’ maddening self-scan checkouts with their heart-sinking queues. “The solution might be taking technology out,” suggests Lola Oyelayo, director of user experience at Head. “For example, queueing at the tills and self check- out areas can be one of the least enjoyable parts of the shopper journey. They could introduce on the move mobile payments, not with clunky devices but with your own device.”

What all this points to is a future supermarket – whether physical or digital – that is streamlined, modern and convenient. Just like in the good old days, this will be shopping as you want it.

This feature was first published in the 27 May issue of The Drum.

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