03 November 2021, 07:27 AM
  • After Covid-19 hit, most of our senses – smell, touch and taste – were erased from the food shopping experience. Now, writes Cinzia Fontana, food designer consultant at Amo Food Design, retailers can begin to rethink the food experience
Cinzia Fontana, food designer: “Experiencing food involves all our senses”

After a very strange year spent between lockdown and open-air activities, we have finally begun again to frequent delis, pubs, restaurants and all the places where food has always extended its value to conviviality, sharing and belonging. 

Walking among products on display, sitting in a restaurant and calmly perusing a menu; rediscovering products I love and trying new ones, perhaps local and sustainable, has given back that sense of normality that I have missed for many months. 

Sure, food stores and markets were operational during lockdown, but for months many of us experienced shopping as fleeting visits to stores to buy only the bare necessities. This daily feeling of necessity lasted until we started living those spaces again as environments where an experience takes place. 

Recently a home routine and in most cases also virtual, has forcibly removed us from what allows us to read the surrounding world: our senses. The five senses are not only life pleasures but also very useful tools that keep us linked to reality, to our ancestral essence. 

What we lost most in this period is the senses of smell and touch. It is no coincidence that we have started to cook more, to rediscover home recipes, to make bread, pasta and many other homemade recipes. It has certainly been a rediscovery of the time and flavours that we had previously lost because of our hectic lifestyle; but not only that, it has also been a way to rebalance the lack of stimulation of these two senses. 

Due to Covid safety rules, smell, touch and taste have been almost erased from our experiential table. In a year where all our senses have been anaesthetized and stimulated only by overexposure to the media, food responds to the need to reconnect to reality and sensorial feeling. Our sensory exposure has been reduced to the almost exclusive use of sight as a channel to collect external stimuli. 

Food is all this and much more. If you look at it with the eyes of a food designer such as I am, it is not only the perfect way to reconnect with your roots, but also a medium to get in touch with your emotions and expression. 

It is not a coincidence, in fact, that as soon as we had the opportunity to relive the spaces dedicated to conviviality, thus stimulating all our senses again, we immediately re-immersed ourselves in the experience. Because this is what we are talking about: experience. The same that we unknowingly live every time we choose something from the shelves of a deli, when we buy a new product or when we enter a restaurant. Experiencing food involves all our senses. 

So what happens when we eat? For example, many consumers are unaware that when you eat you need to be able to smell food, or else you practically cannot taste it. This kind of interaction is what happens with all the senses. When you are using more than one sense at the same time to experience something, synaesthesia happens. The synaesthetic approach can be a tool for food experience designers, as part of the food design investigation. (Check out this really interesting new product called Air up Bottle that has been developed in this direction). 

Making use of recent research studies on the interaction between man and food (psychology of food and consumption), marketing and food design can help points of sale and food producers to find new locations and new ideas for interaction. Relying on synaesthesia first of all as a sensory experience and its cultural and social connections, it is possible to accompany the consumer towards the most suitable choices. 

The way people engage with smell, sounds or even colours, helps producers to design new products or support points of sale. For instance, the well-known concept of shelf positioning at supermarket chains is based on studies of perception and marketing on how to lead buyers to products that the store is keen to sell (using the sense of sight to sell targeted products). 

When we enter a shop or restaurant, we prepare to immerse ourselves in an environmental experience, the success of which depends on the appreciation of all five senses, not just sight. One example of our interaction can be the use of colours and how they are perceived in various cultures. In Western cultures, white is associated with the concept of purity, while for Eastern cultures like China it represents mourning. Not only can colours change our perception of the product and its organoleptic characteristics, but they can also culturally send us different signals of appreciation, or lack thereof. 

The same type of sensory connection happens when we consume a product. If you imagine yourself eating crisps, for example, you don’t just crave the umami flavour that makes it particularly pleasant, but also the sound, which must be crunchy. In this case, the sound of the food is so important that it determines the quality of the product itself and its appreciation. 

As we become aware of this type of customer response, we may include experience within the sales equation. What I think will be the focus for shops, restaurants and producers in the coming months will be to try to give their clientele a key to understanding the experience they will live.