The EXPO 2015 exhibition in Milano, that is coming to a close at the end of October, has concentrated on the future of agriculture and food on our planet. The urgency of these topics is elevated by adverse conditions of climate change (warming) and shortage in water, predicted to worsen further. The EXPO is generally a prime opportunity for countries to promote their nation-brands. This time countries were invited to showcase their advanced scientific and technological capabilities by offering programmes and solutions to overcome environmental and economic challenges of agriculture and food provision.
The supermarket retailer Coop of Italy has yet taken a different direction, within the realm of its business specialisation: Coop Italia proposes at EXPO 2015 its vision of how shopping will be conducted in future supermarkets. They have put on stage a functioning model of a supermarket store (Future Food District / il supermercato del futuro) where detailed product information is displayed on large digital screens and check-out and payment are performed on computer-automated terminals. Almost obviously, such a supermarket will require even fewer human service personnel than met today in the store.
Coop Italia covers online (in Italian) a range of aspects such as food retailing, shopping, technology, and the future of food itself.
It should be emphasised that the experimental supermarket of Coop at EXPO Milano is not just for demonstration but visitors of the site can practically collect food products into their shopping baskets and purchase them at the end of their trip. In the store’s front and on the upper level a visitor/shopper may find fresh produce and packaged food products displayed on shelves. From there he or she may descend to the lower level to find mostly refrigerated and frozen products. If products were actually selected from the display area, the shopper may go to the self-service scan-and-pay terminals and finalise the purchase (payment can be made by credit and debit cards or in cash).
The prospective format offers, according to Coop Italia, new interactions between consumers, products and producers. Mainly, consumers can observe and read from digital display screens much more information on products and their producers than has been traditionally possible in supermarkets. The screens are hanging usually above shelf cabinets or refrigerators at about head level. When the shopper points to a particular product’s title and image on the nearest screen, a variety of details in text and graphics, and a larger pictorial image of the product, will appear on screen. Besides the essentials of product name, size measures and price, additional information may be presented on product components and nutritional values (e.g., calories, sugar, salt, fat, protein, fibres), and on its source (e.g., producer company and country of origin). This facility should save shoppers the effort of tearing their eyes while reading small print on product packages, where packaging is relevant at all. The information is also displayed in a more friendly and comprehensible form (e.g., using understandable terms, illustrated visually in graphic charts). These enhancements of the future shopping experience are much about advanced display technology and data visualization.
Occasionally the visitor/shopper may also see some sales statistics and more background on growing and production of the product of interest with emphasis on nutritional and health implications. Coop Italia suggests that presenting more of these kinds of information will give better direction to consumers on preferred or recommended food products in future times (e.g., given new constraints on food provision). Thus Coop connects to the general issue of the future of food at the focus of EXPO 2015.
Being on site, the space of the supermarket looked elegant and modern. The large black screens hanging over, positioned in an angle as “\”, definitely signalled a change in the visual scene of the store. It was the first cue to be noticed as to how the future supermarket could be different. The screens were easily discernible but their arrangement was not in any way disturbing to the eye — one could quickly get used to them. Activating the display and viewing information for any chosen product was intriguing and to some extent even entertaining. On one hand it felt like “playing” while shopping, on the other hand it increased interest in products considered, if only for curiosity and not for purchase. The information presented was usually helpful and of practical value for decision-making. Overall, the future supermarket model appeared to enrich the shopping experience.
There were some impediments, however, in practice. Making the screen to display information related to a desired product was not always smooth and easy. It was not clear, for instance, if one should raise a chosen product item up to the screen above or just point towards the image of the relevant product (visitors could be seen trying both). Whatever sensors were supposed to identify the gesture of the shopper’s hand or the product itself, they occasionally were not satisfactorily responsive. Most screens were located on-top so that shoppers could not touch them, and therefore the question was: How do I cause the system to recognize my choice of product. But perhaps it was also a matter of some more training by the shopper to get it right (gamers should have better success with such a system).
Additionally, sometimes it felt the information displayed changed too quickly, not giving enough time to review parts of the data provided. Information on each product was usually screened in two or three “shots” (i.e., display of first portion of product information replaced by display of the next portion). Since the shopper has no control of the duration of display, it could be sometimes irritating when, as a shopper, I could not review a data figure of interest in time. But one should remember that usually a shopper is not alone and the same screen may have to serve multiple customers within a few minutes, so a single shopper may be allowed just a brief time to inspect the most needed information. The stress on shoppers might be felt particularly during peak hours of shopping. Hence, shoppers may benefit from the convenience of viewing information on large screens, but when necessary they should be able to toggle to the private screens on their mobile devices to continue their review of product information.
It is noted that Coop Italia provides QR codes for products that shoppers can scan and access the product information on their own devices (and possibly conduct the purchase online).
Regardless of the technology employed, the Coop deserves congratulating for their visually appealing layout and arrangement of product display, and its orderliness and cleanliness. It was evident that great care was invested in setting-up and housekeeping the supermarket. Since this is indeed an experimental stage for the future supermarket, it is reasonable and expected that work to improve the performance and usability of the technology installed will continue. When it arrives, the younger generations will most likely be prepared for this concept. In summary, the shopping experience ‘nel supermercato del futuro’ was positive and encouraging.
How is Coop Italia perceived following its initiative? Naturally, the Coop would expect its Future Food District initiative to have a positive effect on the company’s image. Feedback they received from consumers following their visit of the future supermarket included (most frequent responses, cited from video clip):
- The Coop demonstrates that it is modern and up-to-date (48%)
- The Coop demonstrates that it has at heart the future of the planet and its inhabitants (29%)
- The Coop demonstrates that it keeps in line with the new requirements of consumers (27%)
- The Coop anticipates the future (19%)
- The Coop is looking to generate curiosity and interest (13%)
But 16.5% also indicated that the Coop has gone too much ahead of its time, that consumers are not ready yet for all this technology, and 15% argued that the Coop may risk distancing those who are not familiar with the technology. Hence, the technological advances may be welcome, yet it could be too early to implement at this time.
The EXPO exhibition in Milano this year was enormous in scope and fascinating; it was well-organised and instructive. All countries presented products and other artefacts, images and models standing for some of their national and cultural assets and symbols, emphasising, as much as possible for each country, environmental considerations and priorities. The differences in scale between exhibits of countries, however, were striking. There was also large diversity in level of sophistication of presentation, in the technologies used and other display aids applied. In particular, some countries focused more on high-tech techniques while others relied mainly on low-tech features.
Country exhibits hosted in shared-pavilions by theme (e.g., Cacao and chocolate, coffee, rice, bio-Mediterranean, arid zone) were modest; those countries also related moderately to projects or developments to resolve agricultural and food challenges. But even among smaller exhibits it is unfair to talk of homogeneity because some countries were enlightening exceptions who managed to put up impressive and interesting exhibits.
Countries exhibiting in their own pavilions blended more expansively between their traditional assets and their programmes and technological solutions dedicated specifically to the challenges of future agriculture and food. It must be noted that some pavilions were impressive in their architecture per se. But the country pavilions also proved that size is not everything — diversity in level of effort invested, ingenuity and richness was discernible among those pavilion exhibitions. Furthermore, it also did not seem that variation in quality, originality and interest of exhibits was accounted for merely by differences in economic power or resources.