What role will technology play in the food industry’s future?

28 May 2020, 09:03 AM
  • We look at how solutions and services are helping businesses during the pandemic, and how they could be implemented moving forward
What role will technology play in the food industry’s future?

It’s no secret that advances in technology have led to changes in nearly every industry. But the coronavirus pandemic has arguably boosted our reliance on technology, and it could play a pivotal role moving forward. In fact, experts and key business decision makers in various sectors seem to agree that the pandemic will accelerate digital transformation across the board.

In the food sector, technology was already being implemented, from home delivery apps to in-store technology. And with the recent lockdown restricting people’s movements, the key role that the digital sphere plays was made clear. Now, as restrictions are eased, food supply chains begin to find their flow, and retailers begin to reopen, it’s obvious that things won’t be going back to normal any time soon. With many Brits admitting they want to continue with many of the habits and activities they enjoyed during lockdown, technology that proved essential during the last few months could still be an effective tool for food businesses, whilst new ones offer increased opportunities. So how is technology affecting the food and drinks industry today, and what could it mean for the future?

Safety first
Food shopping – for now, anyway – revolves around queuing before entering a premises, maintaining a distance between staff and customers, and taking certain hygiene measures such as disinfecting shopping baskets and only using card payment. To help streamline these measures for customers as well as offer solutions for retailers, various technology platforms and services are being implemented.

Supermarket and food-to-go chains such as Costa, Greggs and Sainsbury’s are said to be looking into virtual queuing systems and customer counts. Systems such as these could see customers wait in their cars and only enter the premises when their number is called, a system that could also prove beneficial for smaller retailers and farm shops.

Other businesses may be turning to technology solutions such as Sintuitive, a software that uses a thermal imaging camera and a smart display to control occupancy levels in adherence to social distancing guidelines. Meanwhile, systems such as Checkpoint Systems are being considered by supermarkets and suppliers, to check the temperatures of staff and customers using AI facial temperature measurement sensors.

“The implementation of retail technology holds the key to building the future of retail that supports our new shopping habits whilst also helping retailers to safeguard themselves against future cases of irregular consumer behaviour,” said Will Broome, founder and CEO of retail tech pioneer Ubamarket, which provides a ‘scan and shop’ in-store app for retailers. “After Coronavirus, the world won’t go back to how it was – people will be more hygienic and convenience-conscious, and retailers will be looking for ways to adapt to the shift in consumer behaviour and protect themselves against future shortages.

“Retail tech offers an all-encompassing solution; in Ubamarket’s case, that’s in the form of a simple app, which can put consumers in control, doing away with the need for time-consuming queues, unhygienic checkouts, and confusion about where products are and whether they are in stock. It remains to be seen how the sector will fare beyond coronavirus, but retail technology is sure to play a significant role.”

Online shopping
Perhaps one of the biggest changes as a result of the pandemic has been customers increasing their purchases of food and drinks online, and it led to a rapid change in the way many businesses operated. Many retailers quickly set up click-and-collect or home delivery services that they didn’t already offer. Following the closure of the hospitality industry, independent brands and businesses started offering DTC operations to reach new markets. Even new companies were set up to cater to the growing demand, whilst some non-food businesses expanded their offers to include food.

After such an investment, businesses will no doubt be eager to continue offering these online services, and it could prove beneficial to the business to do so. As footfall is expected to still be low in-store, offering online shopping means businesses can expect two revenue streams. What’s more, as many people admit they’ll shop on the high street less than they did before, online shopping could be here to stay for some time.

It certainly makes investing in online services more worthwhile for retailers and brands. Companies like Slerp, which helps businesses to pivot their model and quickly offer an on-demand and pre-order solution to their customers, allow businesses to open a new direct revenue stream.

Digital marketing
Marketing is perhaps one of the most valuable tools at the moment as businesses compete for online orders. Digital marketing offers a realm of opportunities for food businesses, from independent brands, to farm retailers, and with customers expected to continue shopping online, investing in digital marketing could prove fruitful.

“Marketing has always been important, but some people haven’t understood the power of a brand,” Elliot Rich, managing director of The Alternative Board, told us. “Marketing should be the number one area you’re budgeting for right now. If you don’t have surplus to invest, consider the grant money you’ve got (perhaps the rate relief grant); others are using business interruption loans to assign money to marketing activities because they know that by increasing their brand profile while competitors are sitting on their hands, they’ll be the ones in the spotlight – and you’ll get that money back.”

Customer loyalty has been a hot topic as businesses welcome new customers that they fear they may lose post-coronavirus. Marketing offers the chance to retain these customers by speaking with them directly, whether that’s through email or social media. Newsletters are a great way of keeping in touch with customers both new and old, to communicate key messages such as seasonal opening times, new services and product launches.

Business owners may also consider shooting videos and sharing them on social media to offer a more personal touch. Many independent businesses are also taking advantage of the visual discovery app Pinterest, which is encouraging users to shop local, whilst also offering a new route to market for some brands and businesses.

Remember that doing your own marketing isn’t always the best way to go about it, particularly as the online sector changes rapidly. Consider hiring a part-time consultant who can assist with optimising your website, or creating social media strategies to help you reach new markets.

Virtual events
Throughout lockdown, we’ve seen everything from press conferences and internal meetings, to charity events, pub quizzes and dinner parties turn virtual. What’s more, as a growing number of people turn to home-cooked meals, online cooking classes are popping up left, right and centre. And whilst lockdown restrictions have been eased, there’s still uncertainty about when events will go back to normal. But now that businesses and individuals have become adept at using platforms like Zoom, virtual gatherings and meetings may actually be here to stay for a while.

For the food and drinks sector, this could mean tailoring products and offers to include dinner boxes for hosting a virtual dinner party, or even recipe video series for people cooking at home.

There’s no doubt technology in its various guises will play a vital role in the food sector moving forward, providing various opportunities for retailers and independent businesses to grow.

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